Missionaries, Martyrs and the Nguyen Dynasty of Viet-Nam
           It is a question that comes up now and then: how can a Christian support the Nguyen Dyansty of Vietnam when they oppressed and persecuted so many Christians? Yes, it is true that I am very much out of the ordinary in this way as well; being a devout Catholic who does support the Nguyen Dynasty, for the fact that I am not a big fan of President Ngo Dinh Diem and because I do not believe all of the missionaries sent to Vietnam were as pure as the driven snow. I have found that there are few subjects more complex, confusing and often contradictory than the history and politics of Vietnam. Therefore, a little explanation is in order.
            First of all, it should be known that Christian missionaries made their first appearance in Vietnam during the twilight years of the long reigning Le Dynasty. Sometimes they were tolerated, sometimes not. In old Vietnam, the state practice of Confucianism, while not an official religion, was so interwoven with the government that it was no small thing for foreigners to show up and start teaching people that it is not right to honor their ancestors or venerate their "great teacher" Khong Tu in the way they have been doing for centuries.
"Go home you round-eyed barbarians"
           The first major mass-persecution of Christians actually came about during the years of the Tay Son regime under the Emperor Canh Minh in 1798, when Our Lady of Lavang first appeared near Quang Tri. This was actually a result of the common bond between the Christians and the Nguyen Dynasty. The Tay Son had been trying to exterminate the Nguyen and in 1777 the last heir, Prince Anh, was given refuge on Phu Quoc
Island by a man who became his life-long friend, Monsignor Pierre Pigneau de Behaine of the Society of Foreign Missions. The persecution of Christians which resulted from this friendship and future alliance represent a common bond as Christian and Nguyen loyalist alike shed their blood together. Prince Anh later became Emperor Gia Long, his son, Crown Prince Canh (who died before Anh became emperor) was the first prince of Vietnam to convert to Christianity. Under Gia Long, remembering the friendship of Msgr Behaine, later Bishop of Adran, Christianity would always be allowed full freedom.
            No one can argue with these facts, however the point where many Christians part company with the Nguyen Dynasty comes after the death of Gia Long and the role of his successors, Thieu Tri, Minh Mang and most especially the Emperor Tu Duc. Yet, even here, the bare facts do not reveal a systematic oppression of religion. In fact, Thieu
Tri dismissed many sentances of death against Christian missionaries implicated in plots against him simply because he wanted no trouble with the western powers. Likewise, Emperor Minh Mang, despite his fierce reputation in French propaganda, is described by all of those who met him as being bookish, quiet and gentle to the point of being called effeminate. It must also be recognized, and should be honestly admitted by the Christian community, that there was no problem at all until foreign missionaries were found to be involved in political conspiracies against the court. Too many were straying from spiritual into temporal matters.
           This was certainly the case with the much-maligned Emperor Tu Duc, who is often considered the most anti-Christian of all Nguyen monarchs by modern opinion. However, here again, action was not taken against the Christian community until a French missionary was found to be involved in a plot against the Emperor, whose succession to the throne had been far from smooth. There is also ample evidence that Emperor Tu Duc was far from being any kind of anti-Christian bigot.
          For example, he had Christians included in the highest levels of his government. Probably the best known is Nguyen Truong To, who was allowed to travell to Rome for an audience with the Holy Father, who brought back books from the west on Christianity and was allowed to translate them into Vietnamese. Certainly, if Emperor Tu Duc had such a hatred against all Christians he never would have allowed this. It was only when the safety of his throne and the stability of the nation was at stake that he took drastic measures against Christians.
            The Church has apologized for many things in recent years, and not always for things which I think she should be sorry for, however the events in Vietnam were certainly never included. Personally, this does not concern me, however, I do think that Christians should be honest enough to examine
the facts and admit that the situation in Vietnam was not as 'black and white' as it is often made out to be. The persecution of anyone is of course always wrong, regardless of the circumstances. However, today the Nguyen Dynasty has few advocates to speak on their behalf and point out that there is also absolutely no reason for any Christian missionary to be plotting against a government which is not harming them and so provoke the anger of the lawful authorities.
            I have infinite sympathy for any Christian who is oppressed or persecuted because of their beliefs, and I believe that the actions of at least the French Empress Eugenie were purely motivated in responding to this. Yet, I also firmly believe that more than a few of the French missionaries were actually serving as agents of the government, or were at least being unwittingly manipulated by the French imperialists. We must also learn to move on when it comes to painful issues. Full toleration of Christianity was restored later on by the Nguyen Emperor Dong Khanh, and here we can see an example of the anti-Nguyen bias of many historians. For, whereas Emperors Thieu Tri, Minh Mang and Tu Duc are accused of being too harsh with the French and inviting attack, Emperors Dong Khanh, Khai Dinh and Bao Dai are just as frequently criticized for being too friendly with the French and doing nothing while their country was exploited. Which is it to be, then?
            As should be clear by now, I am a monarchist by necessity of being a Christian, and I believe that in matters concerning royal dynasties, over which, as decided by birth, man has no control, that God will always work things out to the best advantage if only we little people will hold fast to our faith and loyalty. Therefore, I think it was part of God's plan for the advancement of Christianity that the last Emperor of Vietnam abolish the harem, take as his wife the devoutly Catholic Empress Nam Phuong, eventually convert to Christianity himself, thus becoming the (in exile at least) the first Nguyen monarch to do so and that Empress Nam Phuong, before her early death would see to it that her children were raised as Christians. Therefore, if only we mortals had succeeded in being loyal and faithful, particularly in the case of certain prominent Vietnamese Christians, the country would today be under the reign of a Catholic Emperor instead of a Communist president.
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