From 1849 to 1862, during the early years of the Vietnamese emperor Tu Duc (r. 1848–1883) of Vietnam, the most intense, brutal and bloodiest anti-Christianpersecution ever in history happened in Vietnam, also was the last state-sponsored persecution of Catholic Christians in Vietnam, as a part of Tu Duc’s efforts to eradicate every trace of Vietnamese Christianity. The persecution suddenly stopped in 1862 after a royal decree was passed by Tu Duc himself which granted Catholicism legitimate freedom to practice and protection.
The persecution began in 1848, the year of Tu Duc’s inauguration. Accusing the Catholic Christians of abandoning ancestor worship, Buddha, and practicing superstitions, and fearing that they would revolt against his rule, Tu Duc labeled the Catholics as ta dao (heretics), and issued a nation-wide edict to forbid Catholicism. Missionaries were thrown onto the sea. Vietnamese priests had to denounce their faith, and they would face severe punishments and be tagged as ta dao on their cheeks. The persecution was seen as retaliatory for the French incursion on Danang last year, as Tu Duc shut down all contacts between his kingdom and the outside world.
Two years later, on 21 March 1851, Tu Duc ordered a new edict against the Franciscans. Vietnamese priests who did not denounce their beliefs and trample the cross would face the same fates as European missionaries, being executed and cut into pieces and thrown onto rivers.
In September 1855, accusing Catholic sympathy of Le loyalists rebelled against his rule, Tu Duc ordered a new decree, all churches to be burned, all public Christian gatherings were banned, and all efforts were to destroy the ta dao (Christians). In early 1857, Napoleon III sent Charles de Montigny to negotiate trade with Vietnam, but Tu Duc ignored. The ship captain La Capricieuse previously had sent a letter to Tu Duc demanding free trade and religious freedom. At the same time, the court was going to had Christian high-ranking mandarin Michael Hồ Đình Hy trial and execution for being “traitor”. Before departing, de Montigny opened fire at the Vietnamese port of Da Nang as a threatening warning to Tu Duc, calling for stopping the persecution. Furious, Tu Duc believed that these provocations were part of Christians’ plots with foreign enemies. Feeling insecure, on 6 June the emperor issued a new edict to consolidate his policy over Christianity. He forced all Christians to have weddings and funerals based on traditional Vietnamese rituals, including the worship of ancestors and spirits.
In 1858, a Catholic bishop named Ta Van Phung in Hai Duong Province changed his name to Le Duy Minh, proclaimed as the emperor of Catholic Vietnam, and rallied Le loyalists against Tu Duc. Two Dominican priests joined his rebellion. In May, the Grand bishop Melchior Sampedro of Hue condemned the Ta Van Phung rebellion as foolish and forbade Christians to join it. However, Tu Duc ordered Sampedro to be executed on 28 July because Ta Van Phung was a Catholic. Ta Van Phung’s forces later were said to be 200,000 strong. The rebellion lasted until 1865.
After the French expeditionary army had invaded and seized Saigon in February 1859, Tu Duc launched a new campaign against Catholic mandarins in the government. On 15 December, he issued a new edict which demoted all Catholic officials in the government, and immediately death sentenced for those high-ranking mandarins who refuted their faith. On 17 January 1860, Tu Duc issued another decree that he would not have the ta dao being free. In July, he banned and targeted the Lovers of the Holy Cross.
On 5 August 1861, the worst persecution came to the Christians. The emperor issued a royal “dispersal” decree in order to eliminate Christianity at its root:
- Round up and relocate all Christians to non-Christian (Buddhist, Vietnamese folk believers,…) villages.
- Supervision of every Christian by five non-Christians in every village.
- Destroy all Christian churches, villages and communities.
- Confiscate all lands owned by Christians and distribute them to non-Christians.
- All Christians are tagged in their cheeks with two words ta dao (heretics).