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Asia Insight

Pope Francis' Japan visit spotlights a safe haven for Catholics

Tour brings hope to believers facing persecution in Asia and beyond

FRANCESCA REGALADO, Nikkei staff writer | Japan

TOKYO -- With the careful hands of a surgeon, Guillain Mwenge gingerly produces a blue and white card from his backpack. The thin slip granting him a seat in Tokyo Dome may well be the most prized possession for the doctor-turned-refugee, who found sanctuary in Japan after escaping political persecution in Congo a year and a half ago.

Despite having to leave his country and his family due to his activities with a youth protest group, seeing the leader of the faith he was raised in gave meaning to Mwenge's journey to Japan. He was one of five refugees and about 55,000 Catholics who received coveted tickets for a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis in the storied baseball stadium.

Japanese Catholics comprise only 1% of Japan's population, but in recent decades, the country has become home to a diverse diaspora of Catholics and other Christian denominations. Tokyo's churches are full of believers from the neighboring Philippines and from the West. There are also immigrants and refugees who have found it safer to practice Christianity in Japan than in their native lands in China, Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

"For me, I grew up in a Catholic family, so I'm just excited to be there," Mwenge said of the Mass.

For his fourth trip to Asia since becoming leader of the Catholic Church six years ago, Francis chose to visit two non-Christian countries: Thailand, which is predominantly Buddhist, and Japan, where people tend to embrace customs from several different religions without adhering to any particular one. The last papal visit to Japan was in 1981, when Pope John Paul II visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the center of the Japanese Christian community, to meet survivors of the atomic bombs.

Pope Francis celebrates Mass on Nov. 24 in Nagasaki, where he spoke out against nuclear weapons. (Photo by Shinya Sawai)

Like his predecessor, Francis delivered a message against nuclear weapons, as well as other threats to human life such as climate change and natural catastrophes, economic inequality and war.

"Here in this city, which witnessed the catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences of a nuclear attack, our attempts to speak out against the arms race will never be enough," the pope said in Nagasaki on Sunday.

Japanese bishops and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government have been seeking a visit by Francis for years. The invitation was finally accepted this year, providing the pontiff an opportunity to meet Japan's newly enthroned Emperor Naruhito.

"Japan has been on the church's mind since the 1600s. It's never been a fully recognized project," said Frank Ngo, a researcher at Sophia University, a Tokyo institution founded and operated by the Society of Jesuits, the first Catholic missionaries in Japan. Francis is the first pope from the Jesuit order.

"There has been tension between the Japanese bishops and the Vatican over what it means to be Catholic and Asian, going back to Benedict and John Paul II," Ngo said, referring to Francis's predecessors.

Yet, despite disagreements over doctrine, culture and the translation of Catholic rites into Japanese, Japan by virtue of its secularism may become one of Asia's last havens for religious pluralism. Rising fundamentalism in Indonesia, India, Vietnam and the Middle East poses a threat to Christians and other religious minorities.

Religious friction in Indonesia, home of the world's largest Muslim population, has gradually increased over the past two decades.

"After the fall of Suharto, everyone was given freedom of speech, including the Islamists," said Andreas Harsono, a Jakarta-based researcher with Human Rights Watch.

The megaphone held by fundamentalists has pushed even the moderate government of President Joko Widodo to embrace repressive policies such as the blasphemy law, which punishes slights against Indonesia's six officially recognized religions. Protestantism and Roman Catholicism are two of the six. But the highest-profile case in recent memory was that of former Jakarta Gov. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese Christian known by the nickname "Ahok," who was jailed for insulting the Quran.

Religious harmony regulations that give an area's majority religion veto power over houses of worship have also led to the closure of over 2,000 Indonesian churches, according to Human Rights Watch.

Meanwhile, in China, a decadeslong standoff between the Vatican and Beijing eased last year when Pope Francis recognized seven bishops appointed by the government. But Hong Kong's bishop emeritus Cardinal Joseph Zen criticized the deal as a betrayal of Chinese Catholics who practice their faith in fear of the Communist regime.

A Mandarin-language Mass at Ueno Catholic Church in Tokyo on Nov. 24, organized by the Chinese Catholic Center.

Most of the Chinese parishioners at Tokyo's Ueno Catholic Church belonged to the "underground" church in China, according to Father Robert Deiters, an American Jesuit priest who has been in Japan for 67 years and leads the Chinese Catholic Center. "Underground doesn't mean they're hidden or secret, but they are led by bishops who weren't approved by the Chinese government," he explained.

After the Communist revolution, the Vatican was cut off from the Chinese Catholic community, due to a disagreement over the right to appoint and ordain bishops. The Chinese government oversaw a state-approved church and selected its own bishops, while a parallel underground church remained loyal to the Vatican. Despite the recent thaw, the Vatican still has no ambassador in Beijing.

At the Ueno church, Chinese families gather for Sunday Mass in Mandarin. Parents bring children of all ages -- unthinkable in China, where some local government regulations forbid anyone under the age of 18 from attending church or receiving a religious education.

Although Japan affords such freedoms, some feel society could still be more welcoming.

Many Japanese Catholics keep their beliefs private. "Some of the students I speak with hide their religion because their friends have a funny reaction and make a big deal out of it," said Sophia University's Ngo. "They don't want to be made into some sort of 'other.'"

Pope Francis greets well-wishers during a Holy Mass at Tokyo Dome on Nov. 25. (Photo by Kai Fujii)

Japan's churches have benefited from the growing number of immigrants, from Filipinos and Westerners in Tokyo to South Americans working in the car factories of Nagoya. "A lot of parish life, especially in Tokyo, has been invigorated by immigrants," Ngo said.

But Masayuki Katsumoto, an engineer who attends Hongo Catholic Church, said Japanese Catholics often shy away from mingling with immigrants in their churches due to the language barrier. "It's a problem. We have to learn to live with the foreigners," said Katsumoto, who volunteers as a Japanese language tutor in the church's refugee services office to help newcomers integrate into society.

A chorus of languages greeted Pope Francis on Monday as he entered Tokyo Dome in his custom popemobile.

Outside the stadium, people stood in line in case any tickets became available at the last minute. As she waited, Miya Guerrero, a lifelong Catholic from the Philippines, smiled when a group of Japanese schoolchildren were ushered in.

"I'd rather let the young people have the tickets," she said, "so their faith will be strengthened."

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