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The ties that bind two corners of the world

Bergoglio's Argentina and South Korea share history of Catholic resistance

<p>A picture of Pope Francis (right) taken when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires (archive picture: Presidencia de la Nacion Argentina) </p>

A picture of Pope Francis (right) taken when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires (archive picture: Presidencia de la Nacion Argentina) 

  • Cristian Martini Grimaldi, Seoul
  • Korea
  • June 12, 2014
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There is a fine thread that binds the lives of Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Argentina and the recent history of South Korea. The period when Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, was Provincial of the Jesuits in Argentina (1973 – 1979) was a time of social and political tumult, when Jesuits and other priests were among those most at risk. The reason: because they were among the few who would speak of freedom in Argentina at a time when freedom did not exist.

South Korea shares a recent common history with that of Argentina, when the years of political turmoil in the 1960s and 1970s brought a repressive military into power. Both countries found democracy only in the 1980s (in 1983 for Argentina, in 1987 for South Korea).

Bergoglio lived at a time when a mere act of kindness could transform you into a hero. It is said that he went so far as to house behind the walls of the Jesuit Colegio Máximo, in San Miguel, many people “unpopular” with the dictatorship. Many of these were simple priests who, using the excuse of a spiritual retreat, were confined within the perimeter of the Colegio for their own safety. He also used tricks to protect people, such as taking advantage of his facial similarities with a man wanted by the military regime. The future pope gave him his passport and dressed him as a priest, and packed him safely off to Sao Paulo in Brazil. In these and other ways, the world's most famous Jesuit saved many lives.

It was not until 30 years after the declaration of Korean independence that the country could have a genuine democratic election. Korean Catholics during the years of military rule played a major role in keeping alive a sense of justice and awareness of civil rights.

Catholics, despite being a religious minority, became the main opposition force during the long period of the dictatorship. It was a prolonged period of non-violent opposition, but nonetheless the Church offered a strong voice of resistance in the defence of human rights and freedom in the country.

“You have to understand the history of Korea in the 60s and 70s”, said Bishop Kang, President of the Catholic Bishop Conference of Korea. “At the time of Cardinal Kim, Bishop Daniel Ji of Wonju and other bishops were very active in speaking out against the dictatorship, and in favor of human rights.

“At that time, no one could speak out against the national policy of the president, only the Catholic Church. Koreans knew that if you wanted to hear the truth you had to go to church. And this situation has lasted decades. Bishops and priests were arrested and tortured for this reason.”

In the middle of the dictatorship in 1971, the Korean bishop’s conference prepared a program for the training of Christians in the social doctrine of the Church, establishing the "Year of Justice and Peace." They also wanted to publish books to promote the social teachings of the Church.

But this was blocked by the regime. The bishops tried to get around the censorship by publishing pamphlets that reported the social doctrine of the Church and compared it with the situation in which they lived. The pamphlets were banned by the regime but nonetheless had a large circulation among the people.

The Church also formed groups for social engagement, such as the National Association of Catholic Priests for the Realization of Social Justice, and the Korean Commission for Justice and Peace. The cathedral in Seoul became a meeting place where all those who undertook the defence of justice and human rights could find protection.

In the 1970s, at a time of high tension between the Church and the military authorities, Cardinal Kim, who died in 2009, was ordered to deliver those students who fought for democracy and were taking refuge in his own cathedral, Myeongdong. The cardinal told the government: "If the police break into the cathedral, I'll be in the front to defend the students … and behind me, there will be more priests and nuns."

This period also reflects the history of Argentina in its production of major Catholic dissidents during military rule: the still living poet and playwrite, Kim Chi-ha, and a future president of South Korea, Kim Dae-jung. Kim Chi-ha was persecuted for his publications, tortured, tried and sentenced to prison on evidence derived from a confession extorted during his torture.

Kim Dae-jung, who died in 2009, was president of South Korea from 1998 to 2003 and a Nobel Peace Prize winner. He was a strong opponent of the Park Chung-he dictatorial regime and narrowly avoided execution at the hands of Park’s successor, Chun Doo-hwan.

Korea and Argentina are opposites in many ways. They are at far ends of the globe, possess constrasting social, linguistic and cultural characteristics, and have had diverging economic records. Korea ranks 15th among world economies and is characterized by technological innovation. Argentina has a mostly European population with 40 percent of Argentinians enjoying an Italian heritage. It is a developing country with widespread inequalities, high inflation and reliance on agriculture rather than technology or manufacturing.

Yet the two countries share a recent background that will be enriched by the message of hope Pope Francis will share with the young people of Asia.

Cristian Martini Grimaldi is a freelance journalist based in South Korea
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