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Church, Jeju Island Group Admit Both Sides At Fault In Century-Old Tragedy

Updated: November 17, 2003 05:00 PM GMT
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Responsibility for a century-old bloodbath on the Korean island of Jeju belongs to the Church and non-Catholic islanders, modern-day representatives of both sides have acknowledged.

The 1901 Jeju People´s Uprising, a local rebellion against feudalism and colonialism on the island, turned into a conflict between Catholics and others on the island, about 450 kilometers south of Seoul. Of 900 people killed in the fighting, 700 were Catholics.

Representatives of Cheju diocese, which uses the former spelling for Jeju, and the 1901 Jeju Uprising Commemorative Foundation held a seminar on the island on Nov. 7 to mark the 102nd anniversary of the uprising. They issued a joint statement acknowledging that both sides bear some of the blame for the conflict.

The "Declaration of Reconciliation for the Future," signed by Bishop Peter Kang Woo-il of Cheju and by Kim Young-hoon and Kim Chang-seon, co-chairpersons of the foundation, stressed mutual trust.

The Church apologized for contributing to a climate in which Jeju islanders felt obliged to rise up and resist what they saw as a Church in league with Western imperialism.

The foundation apologized on behalf of local people involved in the uprising for the killing of many innocent people, most of them Catholics.

"As descendants," the joint statement said, "we seek mutual forgiveness and reconciliation, by sharing the pain and suffering of the past."

At the time of the uprising, tensions between Catholics and non-Catholics were high following the signing of the 1886 "friendship treaty" between France and Korea. This document guaranteed French Catholic missioners extraterritorial rights on Korean soil.

Some historians say Korean Catholics were seen as siding with imperialist foreign powers. They suggest this eventually provoked bloody riots as people protested against the behavior of some Catholics. Resentment was fueled by the extension of official protection for French priests to Korean Catholics, whose numbers grew as a result. Many, including some criminals, converted to Catholicism to benefit from this protection.

The Church´s attitude toward local culture and religion exacerbated the situation on Jeju. According to the Korean Catholic Encyclopedia, Catholics on the island destroyed trees and objects that were sacred to local shamanistic beliefs, considering these things objects of superstition or idolatry.

Simeon Park Chan-sik, professor of history at Cheju National University, points out that though Catholics may have provoked the tragedy, most who died were also Catholics.

The Jeju-born professor, also a member of the foundation´s steering committee, told UCA News on Nov. 13 that some Catholics still describe the incident as the "Church´s suffering in Jeju." He added, however, that in an effort toward reconciliation, the Church no longer uses the term "martyr" for the Catholics who died.

He said the Church started to use the word "victim" for those killed rather than "martyr" in the book "100 Years of Cheju Church History," published by the diocese in 2000. Professor Park worked as one of the editors of this book.

The history lecturer said the Nov. 7 declaration has historical significance with both sides formally apologizing for the first time after 100 years.

The two-page statement concluded that both sides would try hard to uncover the truth behind the incident, based on mutual trust, and to establish a mood of reconciliation and harmony within the Jeju community.

Father Pius Moon Chang-woo, president of the Justice and Peace Committee of the diocese, told UCA News on Nov. 13 that the seminar produced a "significant development" in establishing a suitable atmosphere for reconciliation.

Father Moon, who spoke at the seminar, explained that a first commemorative seminar in 2001 had focused mainly on establishing both sides´ respective positions toward the tragedy. This one went one step further with both sides acknowledging their "faults."

"At the time of the tragedy, the Church regarded traditional and indigenous culture as an obstacle for its mission, a view quite different from the spirit of Vatican Council II," admitted Father Moon, 41.

The priest said the next step may be the building of a monument at a historical site to symbolize the new spirit of mutual trust and cooperation.

The local Church´s apology for its role in the events leading to the uprising echoed the apology Pope John Paul II made during the Jubilee of the Year 2000. The pope apologized in the name of the Church and asked forgiveness for the sins of all her children in the course of history. He highlighted the need for "purification of memory."

According to 2002 Church statistics, Cheju diocese has 57,198 Catholics in 23 parishes.


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