A painting of Korean Catholic martyrs who were killed for their faith during the late 19th century. (Photo: Research Foundation of Korean Church History)
The South Korean Church has published six books to pay tribute to thousands of martyrs who were killed during one of the harshest periods of persecution of Catholics in the peninsula.
The Church History Institute in Suwon Diocese, some 30 kilometers south of capital Seoul, recently published six volumes on the martyrs of the Byeongin persecution during the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910).
The books are based on testimonies about the lives, spirituality and process of martyrdom from alumni and descendants of the victims, said Father Jeong Jong-deuk, president of the institute.
“The books contain extensive and important information on the martyrs of the Byeongin persecution and they will be used as essential data for those interested in Korean Catholic history and martyrs,” Father Jeong said.
Between 1866 and 1886, about 9,000 Catholics, half of the total Catholic population of Korea at the time, were brutally murdered on the orders of Heungseon Daewongun, the father of King Gojong. The martyrs included nine of the 12 French Catholic missionaries serving the country at that time.
The Korean Church dedicated a martyrs’ memorial in Boryeong county, some 170 kilometers southwest of Seoul. It has become a popular Catholic pilgrimage site.
The institute, established in 2003, has been promoting the lives, works and spirituality of the martyrs of the Byeongin persecution.
The publication of the books is part of a series of programs and activities to mark the 50th anniversary of Suwon Diocese in 2023.
In addition to testimonies, the books also contain a variety of materials including texts and letters of contemporary Catholic bishops as well as reports, writings and observations on the martyrs and writings on Korean Catholicism by Japanese researchers.
The institute translated Chinese texts related to the persecution and added detailed annotations, charts and indexes to help readers grasp the history with ease.
The institute also plans to publish a major book titled Records of the Beatitudes of the Byeongin Martyrs.
It is believed that Christianity came to Korea during the Japanese invasion in 1592 when some Koreans were baptized, probably by Christian Japanese soldiers. It then started as an indigenous lay movement.
However, the Church faced huge difficulty in evangelization as the Korean authorities spurned all contact with the outside world except for taking taxes to Beijing annually. Thousands of Christians including clergy were martyred for refusing to renounce their faith.
Among the most famous martyrs are Andrew Kim Taegon (1821-46), the first Korean-born Catholic priest. Father Andrew was beheaded in 1846 at the age of 25.
In 1984, during his visit to South Korea, Pope John Paul II canonized 103 martyrs including Andrew Kim and nine French missionaries who had been martyred in the 19th century.
St. Andrew Kim is now the patron saint of Korea and this year marks his 200th birth anniversary. The Korean Church has been celebrating the anniversary with year-long nationwide programs.
Thanks to strong testimonies of faith in Christ by early martyrs, Christianity in South Korea has seen extraordinary growth in the past century, from about 1 percent of the population in the 1900s to nearly one third of the population today.
About 46 percent of South Koreans adhere to no religion while 29 percent are Christians and 23 percent are Buddhists in a population of about 51.8 million, according to Pew Research Center.
While Protestants make up the majority, the Catholic Church also has a significant following, estimated to be 11 percent of the population or about 5.6 million people.