UNESCO adds Japanese sites linked to persecution of Christians to World Heritage list

Kyodo

UNESCO decided Saturday to add 12 sites in southwestern Japan that are linked to the history of the country’s persecuted Christians to the World Heritage list.

The sites include the Oura Cathedral in Nagasaki, the oldest surviving church in the country and which is already designated as a national treasure; the remains of Hara Castle, a site of the Shimabara-Amakusa Rebellion that led to establishment of a national policy of seclusion; and the beginning of the hidden Christians’ unique system to transmit their faith and beliefs by themselves.

The sites were among 28 World Heritage candidates reviewed by the U.N.’s World Heritage Committee for four days through Monday in Bahrain.

The decision by the committee brings the total number of World Heritage sites in Japan to 22 — 18 cultural and four natural sites.

The other locations include the village of Sakitsu in Amakusa, Kumamoto Prefecture, where Christians practiced their faith in secret despite persecution for most of the Edo Period (1603-1868) under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate.

Those who continued to practice Christianity despite persecution “nurtured distinctive cultural traditions,” according to the Japanese government.

The newly added sites “bear unique testimony to a cultural tradition nurtured by hidden Christians in the Nagasaki region who secretly transmitted their faith during the period of prohibition from the 17th to the 19th century,” the committee said on its website.

The UNESCO committee comprises 21 states selected from signatories of the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage.In 2015, the Japanese government initially recommended 14 candidate components to UNESCO. But it later withdrew the recommendation and resubmitted it last year under the guidance of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, which advised Japan to focus on the period of prohibition and persecution.

At a museum on Ikitsuki Island in Nagasaki Prefecture, some 100 people including local government officials gathered to celebrate the committee’s decision, setting off firecrackers and scattering confetti.

Some attendees chanted distinctive prayers passed on from their ancestors.

“I’m proud that my hometown is now recognized globally,” said Satomi Ogino, a 31-year-old housewife who briefly returned from Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture. “I’d like to convey the value of the heritage site to my 1-year-old son someday.”

In Amakusa, around 450 people also gathered at a cultural facility to watch the announcement.

“They cast a spotlight on predecessors who kept their faith. I was able to witness a great day,” Emiko Yoshimura, a 67-year-old leader of the congregation at the Sakitsu Church, a symbol of the component sites.

Nagasaki Gov. Hodo Nakamura said in a prepared statement that he hoped the designation would instill a sense of pride in residents while also boosting the local economy.

“We would like to give pride to residents and excitement to visitors through this heritage by engaging in preservation of the sites and revitalization of the region.”

Three other sites in India, Iran and South Korea were also added to the world heritage list Saturday.