The Christian religion has been banned in the eastern country for over 250 years
The Oura Church in Nagasaki became a World Heritage Site in 2018 and is the symbol of the revival of Christianity in Japan. The place is a must-stop for anyone who wants to know the history of “hidden Christians” who declared their faith in that place and put more than 250 years of clandestinity.
Considered to be one of the oldest in Japan, the Oura is one of 12 places of hidden Christians recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Nagasaki and the Amakusa region.
The church was built in 1864 by the French missionary Bernard-Thadée Petitjean shortly after the port of Nagasaki was reopened along with the borders of Japan more than two centuries of isolation afterward.
With the veto that had been imposed on Christianity in the country in 1614 and the presumption that the Japanese Christian community had disappeared after the brutal persecution suffered in the 17th century, the temple turned to the foreigners who lived in the city.
Less than a month after the inauguration, something amazing happened. On March 17, 1865, a group of peasants from Urakami went to church and said that they always pretended to profess local faith and that, in fact, they were Catholics.
This event, dubbed “The Discovery of Hidden Christians,” was immortalized in a mural that today decorates the church garden.
The revelation, led by Elizabethina Yuri Sugimoto, caused Japanese authorities to resume repression against Catholics until international criticism lifted the ban in 1873.
With the reintroduction of Christianity in Japan, some Kakure Kirishitan – descendants of the Catholics who hid in the Shimabara Rebellion in 1637 and 1638 – rejoined the church, even though Christians are still less than 1% of the population today.
Centuries of concealment and isolation, however, have turned religion into a totally different cult. Proof of this is some of the relics exhibited in the Museum and Monument of the Twenty-Six Martyrs, which is next to the church.
When the Japanese became without a priest, tortured for refusing to renounce their faith and murdered, those who resisted created their own authorities and hid their images of devotion.
The museum brings together, for example, several images of Our Lady depicted as Kannon (Maria Kannon), the Buddhist representation of mercy, with which the faithful tried to disguise and avoid being discovered, and the staves that religious leaders should use in ceremonies.
In addition, several crosses, whose meaning was often unknown to these devotees, are being found in ancient villages and it is believed that there may be more than 200 of them scattered throughout the region.
“The people who kept the faith celebrated when the ban on Christianity was withdrawn and now they are again happy with the designation of these spaces as patrimony. This means giving value to what they have stored, “Efe Minako Uchijima, a museum researcher, told EFE.
The halls also prove the persecution of Catholics by the shamans, feudal Japan military who acted in the country between 1603 and 1868.
All of Nagasaki was forced to submit to “Fumi-e,” a practice designed to identify who was and who was not Christian by stepping on an image of Jesus or Our Lady. Many believers have agreed to do this not to be killed, but it is believed that about 5,500 Christians died at that time.
One of the most striking episodes was the crucifixion in February 1597 of 26 martyrs – 9 European and 16 Japanese – on a hill in Nagasaki. On the altar of the Oura Church is a handkerchief that resembles this case.
Father Petitjean’s intention was to build the temple there, but the authorities did not allow it. He then chose the current location and walked the church facing the hill.