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Christianity in Vietnam

The first Catholic missionaries visited Vietnam from Portugal at the beginning of the 16th century. The earliest missions did not bring very impressive results. Only after the arrival of Jesuits in the first decades of the 17th century did Christianity begin to establish its positions within the local population. Between 1627 and 1630, Fathers Alexander de Rhodes and Antoine Marquez of the French Province converted over 6,000.
The French missionary priest and Bishop of Adran Pigneau de Behaine (Vietnamese: Bá Đa Lộc) played a key role
in Vietnamese history towards the end of the 18th century. He had come to southern Vietnam to proselytise. In 1777, the Tay Son brothers killed the ruling Nguyen lords, and Nguyen Anh was the youngest member of the family to have survived, and he fled into the Mekong Delta region in the far south, where he met Bishop Pigneau who became his confidant.  Bishop Pigneau hoped that by playing a substantial role in a Nguyen Anh victory, he would be in position to lever important concessions for the Catholic Church in Vietnam, helping its expansion in South East Asia. From then on he became a politician and military strategist.  At one stage during the civil war, the Nguyen were in trouble, so Bishop Pigneau was dispatched to seek French aid. He was able to recruit a band of French volunteers. Bishop Pigneau and other missionaries acted as business agents for Nguyen Anh, purchasing munitions and other military supplies. Bishop Pigneau also served as a military advisor and de facto foreign minister until his death in 1799. From 1794, Bishop Pigneau took part in all campaigns. He organized the defense of Dien Khanh when it was besieged by a vastly superior Tay Son army in 1794. Upon Bishop Pigneau's death, Gia Long's funeral oration described the Frenchman as "the most illustrious foreigner ever to appear at the court of Cochinchina".
Early Nguyen Dynasty
By 1802, when Nguyen Anh conquered all of Vietnam and declared himself Emperor Gia Long, the Roman Catholic Church in Vietnam had 3 dioceses:
  • Diocese of Eastern North Vietnam: 140,000 members, 41 Vietnamese priests, 4 missionary priests and 1 bishop.
  • Diocese of Western North Vietnam: 120,000 members, 65 Vietnamese priests, 46 missionary priests and 1 bishop.
  • Diocese of Central and South Vietnam: 60,000 members, 15 Vietnamese priests, 5 missionary priests and 1 bishop.

Gia Long tolerated the Catholic faith of his French allies and permitted unimpeded missionary activities out of respect to his benefactors. The missionary activity was dominated by the Spanish in Tonkin and French in the central and southern regions. At the time of his death, there were six European bishops in Vietnam. The population of Christians was estimated at 300,000 in Tonkin and 60,000 in Cochinchina.

Later Nguyen Dynasty
The peaceful coexistence of Catholicism alongside the classical Confucian system of Vietnam was not to last. Gia Long himself was Confucian in outlook. As Crown Prince Nguyen Phuc Canh had already died, it was assumed that Canh's son would succeed Gia Long as emperor, but in 1816 Nguyen Phuc Dam, the son of Gia Long's second wife, was appointed instead. Gia Long chose him for his strong character and his deeply conservative aversion to westerners, whereas Canh's lineage had converted to Catholicism and were reluctant to maintain their Confucian traditions such as ancestor worship.

Lê Văn Duyệt and many of the high-ranking mandarins opposed Gia Long's succession plan. Lê Văn Duyệt and

many of his southern associates tended to be favourable to Christianity, and supported the installation of Nguyen Canh's descendants on the throne. As a result, Lê Văn Duyệt was held in high regard by the Catholic community. According to the historian Mark McLeod, Duyệt was more concerned with military rather than social needs, and was thus more interested in maintaining strong relations with Europeans so that he could acquire weapons from them, rather than worrying about the social implications of westernization. Gia Long was aware of the fact that Catholic clergy were opposed to the installation of Minh Mang because they favoured a Catholic monarch (Canh's son) that would grant them favors.

Minh Mang began to place restrictions on Catholicism. He enacted "edicts of interdiction of the Catholic religion" and condemned Christianity as a "heterodox doctrine". He saw the Catholics as a possible source of division, especially as the missionaries were arriving in Vietnam in ever-increasing numbers.  Duyet protected Vietnamese Catholic converts and westerners from Minh Mang's policies by disobeying the emperor’s orders.

Minh Mang issued an imperial edict, that ordered missionaries to leave their areas and move to the imperial city, ostensibly because the palace needed translators, but in order to stop the Catholics from proselytizing. Whereas the government officials in central and northern Vietnam complied, Duyet disobeyed the order and Minh Mang was forced to bide his time. The emperor began to slowly wind back the military powers of Duyet, and increased this after his death.

Minh Mang ordered the posthumous humiliation of Duyet. This resulted in the desecration of his tomb, the execution of sixteen relatives, and the arrests of his colleagues.

Duyệt's son Le Van Khoi, along with the southerners who had seen their and Duyệt's power curtailed, revolted against Minh Mang.  Khoi declared himself in favour of the restoration of the line of Prince Canh. This choice was designed to obtain the support of Catholic missionaries and Vietnamese Catholics, who had been supporting the Catholic line of Prince Canh. Le Van Khoi further promised to protect Catholicism.

In 1833, the rebels took over southern Vietnam, with Catholics playing a large role. 2,000 Vietnamese Catholic troops fought under the command of Father Nguyen Van Tam.

The rebellion was suppressed after three years of fighting. The French missionary Father Joseph Marchand, of the Paris Foreign Missions Society was captured in the siege, and had been supporting Khoi, and asked for the help of the Siamese army, through communications to his counterpart in Siam, Father Taberd. This revealed the strong Catholic involvement in the revolt. Father Marchand was executed.

The failure of the revolt had a disastrous effect on the Christians of Vietnam. New restrictions against Christians followed, and demands were made to find and execute remaining missionaries. Anti-Catholic edicts to this effect were issued by Minh Mang in 1836 and 1838. In 1836-1837 six missionaries were executed: Ignacio Delgado, Dominico Henares, Jean-Charles Cornay, José Fernández, François Jaccard, and Bishop Pierre Borie.
The Church Today
After the persecution had ended and the rise of Catholics to power during the turbulent 1960s, the Catholic population rose to near 6%[1].  After the Vietnam War ended, the population still rose despite a large number of Catholic escaped abroad.  Today, even with the lack of financial support and religious tolerance, Catholism in Vietnam is still growing along with the world's Catholic population, which has reached 1.147 billion[3].  Pope Benedict XVI created another diocese in southern Vietnam[2].
As for Vietnamese abroad, they contributed to a large increase in Catholics in the United States.  According to U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, as of July 2006, 14.9 million people, a 5 % of the total U.S. population, are Asian or Asian in combination with one or more other races. One million are Pacific Islanders, including Hawaiians (0.3 percent of total U.S. population.)  Hawaii registers the highest proportion of Asians by state population (56%), followed by California (14%) and New Jersey and Washington (8% each).  Largest Asian U.S. populations are Chinese (3.6 million including people from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan), Filipino (2.9 mil.), Indian (2.7 mil.) and Vietnamese (1.6 mil.), followed by Korean (1.5 mil.) and Japanese (1.2 mil.)[4].