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The Roman Catholic Church on Monday held its first ever beatification ceremony in Japan, honoring 188 people who were executed centuries ago because of their religious beliefs.

The ceremony, held in a baseball stadium, was attended by an estimated 30,000 people.

Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins delivered blessings on behalf of Pope Benedict XVI on those killed between 1603 and 1639. Beatification is a stage in Catholicism that comes before sainthood.

Martins said he hopes the Japanese martyrs will become saints one day. Many of the 188 martyrs, aged between 1 and 80, were killed in Kyushu, but others were executed in Yonezawa, now Yamagata, Edo, now Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima and Yamaguchi. Sixty-six were women.

Among those blessed Monday in Nagasaki were Julian Nakaura, a member of a delegation sent to Rome to receive blessings from the pope, and Petro Kibe, the first Japanese person to visit Jerusalem.

“The persecution in Japan lasted long and its cruelty is unparalleled,” Cardinal Seiichi Shirayanagi said during the ceremony. “The martyrs make us think about fundamental issues, such as the meaning of life and its pains.”

The beatification ceremony was realized 27 years after Pope John Paul II told an archbishop in Nagasaki during his trip to Japan in 1981 that the martyrs should be recognized.

Since then, the Catholic community in Japan made preparations for the ceremony. Pope Benedict decided in June 2007 to hold the event.

“I realized that our faith was protected by people who gave up their lives a long time ago,” said Gen Takano, a 16-year-old high school student from Nogata, Fukuoka Prefecture, who attended the ceremony with his family. “I felt the weight of history.”

The ceremony was organized by the Japanese Catholic Church. Forty-two people from Japan have been made saints and 205 Catholics with ties to the country have been beatified — all at the initiative of the Vatican.

Nagasaki is known for four rounds of major persecution against Christians during the Edo Period (1603-1867).

There are an estimated 450,000 Catholics in Japan. Including Protestants, Christians account for less than 1 percent of the population.

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