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Martyrs in Asia

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Martyrs are the seed from which the Church has flourished throughout the History of salvation and today their memory continue to guide the faithful wherever the Christian mission is challenged by hardships, injustices and suffering. In this regard, the case of Asia is paradigmatic. This is the Introduction to the book "Martyrs in Asia", published in April 2019 by the Urbaniana University Press.

Martyrdom is mysticism, it is ecstasy. Usually we concentrate on the painful side of martyrdom, but its most significant dimension is the martyr’s intimate experience of Christ at the moment of his self-giving. It is an ecstatic surrender to the Lord whom he loves. It is the peak moment of his life-choice. It is saying “Yes” to the Master that sums up his life. It is not a dreaded moment, but a coveted one. So we see people in the early Church handing themselves over to the executioners on their own choice, fearlessly welcoming the ecstatic experience, which necessarily involves a supreme sacrifice. So we see the early Christian community celebrating the “birth” of the victim who enters into a new life in the company of Christ.

It was this understanding of martyrdom that strengthened fidelity in the believing community. And the Christian community grew. As Tertullian cried: «The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Christians». So it happened that, in conjunction with the increasing number of martyrs under the Roman regime, the Christian faith spread from end to end of the Empire and beyond. Christians also suffered from severe persecution in Persia, Ethiopia, and elsewhere. But the Christian flock expanded in all directions. On the Eastern Continent, new Christian communities arose in Central Asia, China, South India, and Sri Lanka. 

One thing it is to study martyrdom from a believer’s point of view, another to look at it with the eye of a casual observer. We have described the believer’s vision. A fellow citizen could only see a group of stubborn dissenters who refused to perform a harmless symbolic gesture, accepting the Roman authority and acknowledging their common heritage. However, for the faithful it was a matter of rejecting their own basic beliefs. 

This distance between the believer’s lived experience of a profound spiritual reality, and the neutral observer’s difficulty in understanding his unbending determination, would remain down the centuries to our own days. An Emperor who felt slighted could go to any length in inflicting pain, as the records show. But it is not the pain that makes a martyr, but the believer’s motivation. Augustine said: «Martyrem non facit poena sed causa» (Epist. 89.2). In Christian vocabulary, this is the Faith. Tacitus speaks of an «ingens multitudo» that opted to perish rather than oblige the Roman authorities. Some place the numbers at 10,000, others at 100,000. In any case, immense numbers opted for Christ, especially during the period of Decius and Diocletian. 

Let us return to Asia. In the year 635, a Christian monk by the name of Alopen set up a monastery in Changan, the capital of the Middle Kingdom, as China was then known. The western records describe him as a Nestorian, while in eastern memory he belonged to the Eastern Church. In a short time, several monasteries were built in different parts of the empire, and the monks translated 530 Christian books into Chinese. The Emperor approved these initiatives and Christianity flourished. 

Subsequently, a revival of indigenous loyalties in the country brought along a rejection of everything that had an alien origin. Buddhism and Christianity were suppressed by an imperial edict in 845. Since then, this form of xenophobia has troubled the life of the Christian communities in Asian countries all through history. In the majority of cases, the persecutions of Christians in Asia were driven by the alleged otherness of Christianity. The Church was favoured in Persia as long as it was persecuted in Rome, but it was hunted down from the time Christianity became the official religion of Rome during Constantine’s era.

Between the eleventh and thirteenth century, there was a revival of eastern Christianity in China. Christian communities spread especially among ethnic minorities like the Keraits (about 200,000 Christians), Uighurs, and Ongut Turks. Mongol rulers inter-married with these communities. Kublai Khan wrote to the Pope asking for a hundred missionaries. By the time Fr. Monte Corvino OFM arrived in China in 1294, the Emperor was already dead, but the Franciscan friar managed to lead an Ongut Turk prince to the Christian faith, and gave him the name of George. Soon enough the number of Christians increased to about 6,000. Marco Polo met many of them in different parts of China. The New Testament was translated into Uighur. By the 14th century, Christians in China became 30,000, but shortly thereafter the situation turned hard again for them due to a new national awakening. 

From this brief account of the early period of mission history in Asia, we can draw important conclusions. First of all, ethnic minorities are usually open to foreign ideas (ideologies, religions, cultural trends), which help them to assert their individual identity as distinct from the dominant community. As a consequence, every national awakening straight away seeks to cut off any foreign influence, especially on ethnic minorities. If the first tendency opened the door for Christianity into many Asian countries, the second snapped the same door shut with a bang. Similarly, since foreign ethnic groups like the Mongols and the Manchus welcomed Christianity when they ruled China, their overthrow meant a rejection of the Christian religion. Christianity was yet to find a welcome among the Han Chinese.

In this respect, let us compare the Christian missionary styles to the Buddhist approach. It is said that Buddhism, which also was a foreign religion in China, developed early enough the skill to adapt itself to the Chinese ethos and religious psyche, and so it emerged more successful than Christianity. Even today we notice an eagerness in China to transform anything they take from outside (for instance, communism, capitalism, religious beliefs), imposing upon it what they call “Chinese characteristics.”

To be sure, all great societies and civilizations found it very hard to give up the core assumptions of their heritage, and could not immediately embrace Christianity. The Roman elite could not yield to what it was considered an eastern superstition, as in later times the Chinese and Indian elite could not accept the superiority claims of a religion with marked western traits (though Christianity was of Asian origin, when it was brought to Asia it was in a Hellenized-Westernized form). 

Accordingly, the Jesuit Visitor-General Alessandro Valignano suggested that Christianity had to be presented «with Chinese characteristics» from the beginning, to make it meaningful in the local context. The challenge was accepted by Michele Ruggieri and Matteo Ricci in 1583, who decided to make themselves Chinese in language, culture, dress, style, attitude, and mentality, so that they could be understood and become acceptable. Therefore, many walls were tore down and many bridges built. This made it easy for the Han Chinese to accept a foreign idea, as they found it so Chinese. Over 2,500 people became Christians in a short time, and some even entered the Jesuit Society. 

I will not go through the history of successive events and decisions that sought to reduce the “Chinese characteristics” of Christianity, causing major troubles the Christian community had to go through. However, it is possible to notice that, in various periods of history, persecution was associated with an image of Christianity’s alienness. Apart from that, Christians were often caught amidst other troubles as well: clashing vested interests, political tensions, rebellions, responses, suspicions, fears, xenophobia. But no matter what the external cause, for the individual Christian believer it was a question of fidelity to the definitive choice he/she had made. This fidelity had only “Christian characteristics”, namely generosity unto the end. There is no way of counting the number of Chinese Christians who died during the final stages of the colonial era, and in the early days of the Communist regime. Our deepest veneration goes to each one of them, as much as to all martyrs in Asia. Their sacrifice will be recounted in the chapters of this book, which will preserve their memory.

The history of martyrdom in Asia is rich in examples regarding also other countries, such as Japan. Francis Xavier began his work in Kagoshima in 1549. He won the support of semi-independent local lords which made it possible for him win 800 converts in a short time. But Valignano’s insistence on inculturation was to make a big difference. Barriers fell, inhibitions broke down, and the Catholic numbers went up to 150,000 in Kyushu. A reaction was bound to come, especially as the nation’s central authority began gathering strength. There was also a perception of political threat. Christians were the first victims. The 26 believers who were crucified in Nagasaki in 1597 became the pride of the Christian community for all time. The number of martyrs rose to 436 during the successive generations. A spirituality linked with readiness for heroic suffering became a part of Japanese Christian spirituality. The veneration of the cross gained popularity; a willingness to suffer became a part of their shared culture. 

The development of Nagasaki owed much to the industrious habits and dedication of the Christian community. But a great tragedy was awaiting them. The historic nuclear explosion wiped out the lives of a large number of Christians in Nagasaki along with others. Some of the survivors had the unique ability of looking at the entire disaster with the eyes of faith. They considered their brothers and sisters who lost their lives in the bomb-blast as the sacrificial lambs that brought a lengthy war to a sudden halt. Thus we see martyrdom taking on new meanings and undeserved suffering acquiring new mystical significance. Today there is so much of innocent blood shed in our times. Not a drop, we are certain, goes waste, no matter to whom it belongs.

As for Vietnam, though the first mission run by the Jesuits opened in 1615, the arrival of Alexander de Rhodes in 1624 made a big difference. He strongly believed in the adaptation of the missionary team to cultures and contexts and in the importance of lay collaborators. The Church grew to 300,000 by 1658 in Tonkin alone. A seminary was opened in 1666 by the Foreign Missionaries of Paris (Société des Missions étrangères de Paris, MEP). 

As the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Christians, the growth of the Church paves the way for more martyrs. «If they persecuted me, they will persecute you» too (Jn 15:20). Persecution has not always been for reasons of alienness. A reaction always comes when vested interests are threatened. Jesus was persecuted, not because he had done something wrong but something right, something good. He had healed a sick man (Jn 5:16). Those with vested interests can find a “technical reason” for finding fault with even some good deed. That is what is happening in many missionary contexts today. 

The Church in Vietnam went through severe persecution for generations, which intensified under the Communist regime. It was an ongoing collective experience of martyrdom. But the word of God did not remain “in chains” (2 Tim 2:9), and the Christian community grew precisely in troubled times. Of late, their generosity has taken Vietnamese missionaries to the ends of the earth.

When a Chinese priest James Chu entered Korea in 1794 he found 4,000 Catholics. It was not any priest that had evangelized these people; they were the fruit of lay evangelization. This model remains today even in the most challenging situations anywhere in the world, even where the situation has turned anti-Church and anti-religious. Chinese books had gone ahead of the missionary, which proved to be a great help. By the time that Chu was killed with 300 companions, the number had gone up to 10,000. Tertullian was being proved right again and again. 

In 1845 Andrew Kim, the first Korean priest, reached Korea from Japan. He too was to offer his life for Christ. In spite of persecutions, by 1866 the Christian numbers had risen to 23,000. The Church in Korea was to experience several rounds of persecution, with several MEP fathers losing their lives. Of late, freedom has come to South Korea, while the Northern situation has remained much the same. Korean missionaries too have been taking up work in different parts of the world in recent years.

The memories of past sufferings will serve as a motivation for deeper commitment to the good of society and the upliftment of the poorer sections. In a rapidly changing society it is a great missionary task to identify the cultural and ethical traditions of one’s community that are under threat and defend them against erosion in a globalized world of moral indifference. Gregory of Tours taught that committed Christian life is like spiritual martyrdom, manifesting depth of faith and intensity of love.

Thirty-two MEP priests died in Laos during the first 25 years of their missionary work, due to fevers and ailments of all sorts. We may consider this itself martyrdom of another sort. Dionysius of Alexandria, in fact, considered serving the sick during pestilence martyrdom (Eusebius, Hist Eccl. 7.22.7). This is exactly what Mother Teresa did in Calcutta (I knew her personally and she gave me 7 convents, some of them on the remote mountains). 

The Oblates of Mary Immaculate took responsibility for the northern mountainous areas of Laos. As the hostile activities of the armed forces increased, the missionaries had to suffer much. But they were loved by the community for their nearness to the people, respect for local customs and cultural values, and dedicated work in the field of health and education. Many of them had to pay a price for it with their lives.

Portuguese Dominicans began work in Thailand (Siam) in 1554. The Thai society, in keeping with Buddhist traditions, is usually peaceful. But during politically disturbed times nationalists have taken on Christians, and not a few have suffered. Seven blessed martyrs of Songkhorn are specially remembered. Immense courage and profound faith were visible when Sr. Agnes wrote to the authorities expressing her readiness to lay down her life for her religious convictions. «Open the heaven for us», she wrote. She asked the police officers, in good humour, to keep their guns oiled so that their firing might not fail. 

The Thais are legitimately proud of their seven martyrs. Though Catholics form only 0.4% in Thai society, they act as a leaven among the larger population. Martyrdom in its original sense meant “witness.” Living one’s Christian life with a sense of mission in Thai society, then, turns out to be martyrdom in its original meaning.

Looking Ahead

I would be far from suggesting that the days of Proclamation are over. We announce the Good News to all those who are waiting as Jesus himself did. There are so many people hungry for the word and are eager for someone who can share it. People are rushing to Taize, Lourdes, and Fatima. Asian shrines are crowded. Charismatic prayer gatherings are crammed. We have a duty to reach out to them in every context where there is an opening, in order to stimulate this hunger by a process of co-thinking with individuals and communities. It is by entering into relationships, conversation, dialogue that our work of evangelization is mostly done today, with a view to leading to a hunger for evangelical answers. But before we arrive at the inspired word, which plants a hunger for ultimate answers, it can be a long and painful pilgrimage beginning from the traditions and views of the local community and neighbouring societies, and from the humanity’s social, philosophical and religious insights of all ages. It may be a short venture for some, but a long journey for others like Sir Galahad in search of the Holy Grail. 

Courage, then, and perseverance. For many theologians martyrdom is “fortitude,” a manifestation of courage, daring, the peak event of a venturesome spiritual journey. Jesus often says, «Courage!» (Mt 9:2; 9:22; 14:7). «The gate to life is narrow and the way that leads to it hard» (Mt 7:14), and one «must take up the cross every day» (Lk 9:23) to follow Jesus and His word, like missionaries did in India.

The PIME fathers had established a field mission in Assam for quite some time. Jacopo Broy had served it generously already for 18 years when Augustin Bourry MEP was sent there in 1854. He had been eager to go to Korea or Vietnam, and so he was disappointed about India. But God had other plans and wanted him to join Nicholas Krick MEP, who had already been in the same mission four years trying to make his way to Lhasa. MEP missionaries had been entrusted with the task of looking after Tibet and Assam, but they could not go beyond the latter after several years of attempts. Krick, however, was not a one to be discouraged, and kept moving up and down the Brahmaputra Valley seeking help from different local tribes to lead him to Tibet. He failed. Once he nearly succeeded, but was ordered back by the border guards.

For a while he stayed in Mebo, an Adi village near Pasight, hoping that they would show him the way to his destination. He got on well with the villagers for some time, but after a while he was asked to quit. The British officer in Dibrugarh was shocked to see the missionary in a ragged condition, worn out, and hungry looking. «Father – he said your Pope must be a cruel man asking you to go to such dangerous places, where we would never dare to go without a heavy contingent of soldiers». That night Krick wrote in his diary: «How little the kind officer understands my mission. I am not venturing into these dangerous trips because the Pope has asked me to do so, or because my superiors are compelling me, but because Jesus said, “Go!”» (Mt 28:19). 

And so Krick went on his final trip to Tibet with Bourry. It was a long and strenuous journey up the steep slopes of the Himalayas, which ended with the martyrdom of the two heroes at the borders. Though uncanonised, their blood has fertilized the missionary soil of northeast India where there are today 15 dioceses. This gives hope to those other areas of Asia, where missionaries or early Christians have shed their blood, whether it be in Central or East Asia, South or Southeast Asia. 

Sufferings go on. Statisticians say that there is more persecution in the world today than any time in the past, that more Christians are dying in our days than any other period in history. I would not like to be an alarmist. But at the same time, we may have to get ready for harder times. Aside from ongoing interferences from a secularized society, the believing community can expect harassments from reawakened forms of nationalisms and new ideologies in many parts of the world. 

Consequently, Christian communities in Asia remain vulnerable from many points of view. Their external relationships are suspect, and any external loyalty is condemned. Their patriotism stands questioned whenever they oppose its exaggerated expressions that verge on fanaticism. Their immense services in the fields of healthcare, education, development, and poverty-relief are ignored. There is a biased re-interpretation of history and re-writing of text-books. Prejudices against minority religious groups are being planted into young hearts from early days. Critics of the regimes are threatened, not rarely eliminated. Officially encouraged forms of lynching get accepted as the normal way of handling local problems. Thus martyrdom in such cases is not conferred by the civil authority, but by “sponsored civil disorder.”

Jesus did not promise to save his people from all such troubles, but he promised to stay with them «to the end of the age» (Mt 28:20). Clement of Alexandria, trying to explain the deeper meaning of martyrdom, taught that Christ is «present» with the martyr in his suffering (Strom. 4.9.75). He is always «present». And today he is present with his Church, wherever it is under hardship. Some of these hardships may be internally caused, some of them may be externally inflicted; in whatever form the Christian believers are undergoing suffering, Jesus is there in the midst of them. 

We ought to have courage, then; for he seems to say, “I alone know the plans I have for you, plans to bring you prosperity and not disaster, plans to bring about the future you hope for. Then you will call me. You will come and pray to me, and I will answer you. You will seek me, and you will find me because you will seek me with all your heart” (Jer 29:11-13).

* nota sull'autore
Arcivescovo emerito di Guwahati e Amministratore Apostolico di Jowai (India)

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