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ICC Note: The reason the dozen Christian sites related to Japan’s religious persecution were recently awarded World Heritage status is largely due to the fact that they demonstrate how the believers defended their faith and persevered at all costs, according to local experts.  

07/19/2018 Japan (Japan Times) – The dozen sites related to Japan’s persecution of “Hidden Christians” have been awarded World Heritage status largely due to the fact that they show how the believers protected their faith at all costs, experts say.

UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee recognized that the “Hidden Christian Sites in the Nagasaki Region” — 12 locations that include small villages where people secretly practiced Christianity — “bear unique testimony to a distinctive religious tradition.”

A UNESCO advisory board offered its own suggested sites to the government, which led to their being selected as World Heritage sites on June 30.

Christianity was introduced to Japan in 1549 by Saint Francis Xavier — a Basque and Jesuit hailing from what is now northern Spain — and his companions. The hidden Christians of Japan have come under the spotlight in recent years since Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pontiff, mentioned them in a speech.

“Even when all lay missionaries and priests had been expelled from the country, the faith of the Christian community did not grow cold,” Francis said in his 2015 address to the bishops of the episcopal conference of Japan to commemorate the discovery of the hidden Christians in 1865 despite a ban and persecution that lasted more than 200 years.

“These two pillars of Catholic history in Japan, missionary activity and the ‘Hidden Christians,’ continue to support the life of the Church today,” the pope said.

When Japan initially nominated the “Churches and Christian Sites in Nagasaki” in 2015, it proposed 14 sites but withdrew the nomination because the International Council on Monuments and Sites suggested Japan put more focus on the persecution of Christianity, enforced by the Tokugawa shogunate from the 17th century.

Japan dropped two sites ICOMOS did not consider to be sufficiently connected with the prohibition period, and reapplied in 2017.

The World Heritage site in southwestern Japan includes the remains of Hara Castle, the most important site of the Shimabara Rebellion (1637-38), which involved mostly Christian peasants and subsequently led to the country’s seclusion policy.

Also included were villages on Kashiragashima Island, where hidden Christians camouflaged their faith under the guidance of a Buddhist man. They migrated to the island, which was then used to quarantine smallpox patients, to avoid persecution.

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