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Remembering the Catholic independence hero of Korea

Ahn Jung-geun's faith inspired his fight against injustice and Japanese occupation

Remembering the Catholic independence hero of Korea

Ahn Jung-geun (left) and Japanese prison guard Chiba Toshichi, who befriended the Korean and became a supporter of his independence cause. (Photo: YouTube)

Ahn Jung-geun is hailed as a Korean independence hero, a patriotic martyr who took grave risks and sacrificed his life for the cause of freedom from Japanese occupation of his homeland.

Ahn, a Buddhist-turned-Catholic, shot dead Hirobumi Ito, a four-time prime minister of Japan and the first Japanese governor of Korea, on Oct. 26, 1909, at Harbin train station in China.

Ito was appointed as the chief colonial official after Korea became a protectorate of Japan at the end of the Joseon dynasty’s rule (1392-1897) through the Korea-Japan Eulsa Treaty in 1905 following Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese war that same year.  

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Ahn was arrested, tortured and executed by Japanese imperial forces on March 26, 1910, in Lushun prison in China.

South Korea’s capital Seoul has a museum dedicated to the memory of Ahn Jung-geun. In 2014, China opened the Ahn Jung-geun Memorial Hall in the northern city of Harbin to pay tribute to him, triggering a protest from the Japanese government as Ahn is considered a terrorist in Japan.

The Catholic University of Daegu is the only university in South Korea that established an institute dedicated to academic research on the life and works of the Catholic independence hero. It also installed a life-size statue of Ahn near the central library of the campus in 2011.

This year marks the 111th anniversary of the death of Ahn and the university’s Ahn Jung-geun Research Center has undertaken a series of programs and activities to shed new light on his life, works and yearning for independence and peace in Korea.   

The center is hosting an exhibition with about 100 pieces of historical items and artifacts including photographs and oil paintings depicting his life, Catholic faith, patriotism and struggles for independence. Among the artifacts is a white silk coat worn by Ahn before he was executed.

The center has also persevered the original copy of the unfinished book, Oriental Peace Theory, which is a testament of Ahn’s thoughts and ideology for peace in East Asia.

In October 2012, the center hosted Hwang Eun-sil, 81, Ahn’s granddaughter, and she spoke to students about the life and struggles of her grandfather. Earlier, in 2010, the university held a memorial concert to mark the centenary of Ahn’s death.

Every year on March 26, the university holds a memorial Mass to mark his martyrdom. This year it planned to start a “peace camp” with students but it was delayed due to coronavirus restrictions .

On Oct. 20-26, a calligraphy competition on Ahn Jung-geun is planned. This will not be an academic event but a competition for people from all walks of life and ages, from elementary school students to the general public.

The great interest in Ahn Jung-geun at the Catholic University of Daegu is a legacy of its role as a center of the anti-Japanese independence movement. According to its website, university students were among the first activists who joined the anti-Japanese nationalist movement in 1919 following Japan’s annexation of Korea.   

Cecilia Kim Hyo-shin, director of the Ahn Jung-geun Research Center, believes that the life, works and faith of Ahn still inspire generations of South Koreans.

“Ahn Jung-geun was a great patriot and thinker who not only thought about his nation but also the good future of East Asia based on peace. We feel proud to build upon his legacies,” Cecilia told the Catholic Times in a recent interview.

“I think that the reason that our country was able to rise to the ranks of developed countries as an economic and cultural stronghold was because of the spirit of heroes like Ahn Jung-geun.” 

Ahn Jung-geun was born on Sept. 2, 1879, as the eldest of three sons and one daughter of his Buddhist parents in Haeju of Hwanghae province, now part of North Korea. During his early years, Korea slowly moved away from the rule of the centuries-old Joseon dynasty to become part of the militarist and expansionist Japanese empire.

In his teenage years, he was strongly attracted to Christianity, which was then a new phenomenon in Korea, and converted to Catholicism on Jan. 10, 1897, taking Thomas as his baptismal Christian name.

He married Kim Aryeo and they had three children — two sons and a daughter.

Following his embrace of Christianity, he joined foreign Catholic missionaries to serve Christian communities. With support from the Catholic Church, he set up two Catholic schools and served as the principal.

His ailing father encouraged him to join the anti-Japanese nationalist movement that sought to break free from imperial occupation. His heroic struggles for independence culminated in the assassination of Japanese governor Hirobumi Ito in 1909 that led to his execution a year later at the age of 31.

Although Ahn’s action further propelled the Japanese imperial grip on Korea, he is regarded as a national icon of independence across the country as well as a subject in popular culture including drama, cinema, art, literature and music.

For his contributions to the independence movement, Ahn was awarded South Korea’s Order of Merit for National Foundation in 1962.

Ahn is also remembered for his vision for Asia, known as Pan-Asianism, which was based on the union of three countries of East Asia — Korea, China and Japan — to counter what he called the “White Peril” of European colonialist nations in order to establish to peace in the region.

For decades the Catholic Church in Korea had condemned Ahn for the murder of Ito. That started to change in 1993 when Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan (1922-2009), then archbishop of Seoul, decided to pay tribute to Ahn by celebrating a memorial Mass.

“He acted justly to defend the nation. The Catholic Church does not consider the murder committed to defend the nation against an unjust violence as a crime," Cardinal Stephen told the Vatican Insider.

Franklin Rausch, an American assistant professor of history and philosophy, wrote in 2019 that Ahn Jung-geun’s Catholic faith played an important role in his life and led him to fight injustice.  

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