Japanese Christian martyrs to be beatified

Tokyo, Japan - Samurai warriors, housewives and children were crucified, thrown into hot springs and tortured, but refused to renounce their religion. Japan's extraordinary but relatively unknown history of Christian persecution is finally receiving recognition in a beatification of 188 martyrs.

The upcoming ceremony on Monday bestows honors from the Roman Catholic Church that are one step short of sainthood for Japanese killed from 1603 to 1639. The ceremony is expected to draw 30,000 people to a baseball stadium in the southwestern city of Nagasaki.

The event highlights a tragic page of history for Japan, which shut itself to the outside world during the 17th century, when the shogun rulers, seeking to control people's lives, banned contact with the West, including Christians.

It is also designed to be a celebration of the strength of Christianity in a culture dominated by Buddhism and Shintoism, organizers say. Christians make up only 1 percent of the Japanese population, but Japan now has its first Catholic prime minister _ Taro Aso.

The beatification follows a 27-year effort, including research and documentation of the martyrs' lives, which began with a visit by Pope John Paul to Japan in 1981, Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins said Friday.

"They died for their faith _ not for economic or political reasons," said Martins, who is in Japan to attend the beatification on behalf of Pope Benedict XVI. "They died 400 years ago, but they send us an important message."

Christianity in Japan began with the arrival of Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier in 1549. At first, missionaries were welcomed and Christianity blossomed, growing to as many as 200,000 followers, according to the Catholic Bishops Conference of Japan.

But in 1587, shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi ordered the missionaries expelled, although the order was not immediately enforced. A decade later, the crackdown began, and 26 Christians were crucified.

Those martyrs were beatified in 1627 and became saints in 1862 _ among the 42 people from Japan who have been canonized, or reached sainthood.

The most intense persecution came under Tokugawa Ieyasu, who followed Hideyoshi, and the martyrs being beatified Monday were killed during that period.

Among them will be 16 people, including three children, whose fingers were chopped off and their foreheads branded with a symbol of the cross. They were thrown into the boiling waters of a volcanic mountain.

Another martyr, the Rev. Julian Nakaura, was one of the first Japanese to travel to Rome and receive blessings from the pope. He endured torture called "the pit." Bound tightly with ropes, his body was hung upside down into a hole filled with excrement, until he died on the fourth day.

The Rev. John Isao Hashimoto, one of the beatification ceremony's organizers, said the martyrs' history is a source of pride for Japanese. Although records show 4,000 or 5,000 Japanese were killed for refusing to give up their Christian faith, the true number could be 10 times that, Hashimoto said.

"There is fantastic light in fantastic darkness," he said in a telephone interview from Nagasaki. "No one has the answer on how they were able to endure such great suffering, not even themselves."

Takashi Kawagoe, editor of The Catholic Weekly of Japan, said the beatification is special for the Catholic community.

"Japanese worked hard with the Vatican for this," he said.