East Asia

Japanese persecution sites recommended for UNESCO listing

Ōura Church, Nagasaki. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Japanese islands where Christians were persecuted and killed over three centuries are being recommended as future World Heritage sites.

A dozen sites related to the persecution of Christians during the Edo period (1603-1867) are being put forward for a list of protected sites to UNESCO.

Christianity was banned in Japan during the Edo period, also known as the Tokugawa Shogunate, as the authorities saw people’s faith as a threat to the state from outside influences.

Hundreds of Japanese believers and missionaries were killed, including 26 martyrs who were crucified in 1597, and a further 205 martyrs who were executed for their faith between 1598 and 1632. The 26 martyrs were canonised by Pope Pius IX in 1862, and the 205 martyrs were beatified by him in 1867. Later, in 1987, Pope John Paul II canonised a further 16 martyrs who died between 1633 and 1637.

If the Japanese islands are selected as World Heritage sites the step will officially recognise how Christians secretly protected their faith under a protracted period of persecution. When religious freedom was restored in 1871, 30,000 underground Christians came forward.

The proposed sites are located mainly in Nagasaki Prefecture with one location also in the Amakusa district of Kumamoto Prefecture. A museum honouring the persecuted Christians opened in Nagasaki in April 2018.

Today the majority of Japanese are Shinto or Buddhist believers, while only around 1.5% of Japanese are Christians, although Christmas, and Christian wedding ceremonies are widely celebrated.

Also included in the UNESCO nomination is Oura Church in Nagasaki, one of Japan’s oldest Western-style monuments, which was built in the late Edo Period for Westerners living in secluded settlements.

Missionaries who later served at the cathedral found out from local Christians how Japanese believers had been practising their faith in secret for centuries.

The listing of the sites will be officially discussed at a meeting of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Committee from 24 June to 4 July in Bahrain.