Page last updated at 10:03 GMT, Monday, 24 November 2008

Japan Christians marking martyrs

Saint-Jean de Goto's martrydom in 1597 is marked by this statue in Nagasaki.
Thousands of Christians died for their faith 400 years ago.

Christians in Japan are honouring 187 people who were killed for their faith in the 17th Century.

The event in Nagasaki was organised by the Roman Catholic church and a cardinal sent by the Pope is attending.

It commemorates some of many thousands of people who lost their lives when the ruling shoguns were attempting to wipe out Christianity in Japan.

Today, fewer than 1% of Japanese people identify themselves as Christian; most follow Buddhist or Shinto faith.

About 30,000 people, including a Vatican envoy, were expected to attend the event in a baseball stadium in Nagasaki, southern Japan, making it the largest beatification ceremony ever held in Asia.

Beatification is a step on the way to Catholic sainthood.

Ferocious campaign

Roman Catholics maintain that the campaign against Christianity which took place in Japan in the early 1600s was more ferocious than any other religious persecution in the history of the church, says the BBC's Duncan Bartlett in Tokyo.

They estimate that tens of thousands of Japanese Christians were put to death, many after being tortured.

The martyrdom of Nikolao Keian, one of those being remembered, as depicted in a 1675 book

Christianity was regarded as a malevolent influence on Japanese affairs and a concerted campaign was made to eradicate the faith, our correspondent says.

The ceremony in Nagasaki on Monday will beatify 187 people who were killed between 1603 and 1639.

Christianity was brought to Japan by Francis Xavier in 1549, a Jesuit missionary, but was banned by feudal lords.

At least 5,500 Christians are believed to have been killed for their faith in Japan; some were burned to death, others were beheaded or drowned.

"They died for their faith - not for economic or political reasons," said Vatican representative Cardinal Jose Saraiva 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," he said.

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