Korea's Religious Places - 3. Christianity
|Understanding Korea Series No.6|
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|* Donam Seowon (Nonsan, Chungcheongnam-do)||3. Christianity||1)* Myeong-dong Cathedral, Seoul|
Christianity in Korea is a two-part story. One part Catholic and one part Protestant. The Catholic story is older—dating back to the eighteenth or even seventeenth century—and the Protestant story is younger, dating back to the 1880s. The Catholic story is filled with persecution and martyrdom; the Protestant story is one of good fortune and good timing. Their stories are so different and the divide between the two forms of Christianity is so sharp that the terminology for the two is distorted. Christian has come to mean Protestant, and Catholics are somehow mostly excluded from the term Christian. It is not unusual to find that when you ask a Korean Catholic if he is Christian, he will reply, “No. I’m a Catholic.”
The first Korean Catholics were those who, on diplomatic missions to China, had met Catholics from Europe in Beijing. The Koreans were fascinated with the different-looking foreigners and were impressed with their knowledge of the world and of science. Rather than call the doctrine of these foreigners Catholic, they called it Western Learning and in many ways, it was the scientific knowledge more than the religious knowledge that appealed to the Koreans. But with the new way of looking at the world came the religion; and Koreans in China, and then surreptitiously in Korea, began to join the Catholic Church. This clandestine activity was viewed by the court as being disloyal to the Confucian-based state orthodoxy, and the government led bloody suppression of the Catholics in three great persecutions in 1801, 1839, and the 1860s. Relief came only in the 1880s.
Protestant Christianity entered Korea with royal blessings, centering on the events of 1884 when the Radical Reformist Faction of government officials attempted to assassinate members of the Conservative Faction, including the brothers-in-law of the king. This turn of events was fortunate for the Protestants. The attempted assassinations were set to take place at the dedication of Korea’s first modern post office on December 4, 1884. The strategy failed and Kim Ok-gyun, leader of the Radical Reformist Faction, fled to Incheon and boarded a ship for Japan, but his co-conspirators were able to wound Min Yeong-ik, a key figure in the Conservative Faction. It was known that one of the American diplomats, Horace Allen at the American legation, was a surgeon, and he was called in to save Min’s life. The surgery was successful; but more importantly, the incident brought Allen in contact with King Gojong, who was appreciative of the American’s medical ability. Allen then asked King Gojong for permission to bring missionaries into Korea who could train young Koreans in Western medicine. But to learn Western medicine, students needed to have a general Western education, so the missionaries offered to build schools as well as hospitals. More importantly, since the missionaries were bringing in education and medical training, they were allowed to set up churches as well, and all with royal approval.
Therefore, the Protestants were able to operate freely and openly. The result was, ultimately, that Korea has become the most Christian of all Asian countries, with the exception of the Philippines.
Not only did Korean Protestantism start out on the right side of political power in Korea, but it also came to be associated with nationalism and the right side of politics in the complicated twentieth century. With the imperialistic Japanese takeover of Korea in 1910, and growing power even before then, the Western Christian missionaries, as symbols of Christianity, were seen as a positive alternative to the Japanese. Specifically, in the March First Movement (Samil Undong) of 1919, when the people held massive demonstrations against Japan and called for Korean independence, the Christians were again on the right side of nationalism in that the written declaration of Korean independence was spread through the countryside by the Christian churches as well as the native Cheondogyo (Religion of the Heavenly Way) churches. Among the thirty-three signers of the declaration, sixteen were Christians, two were Buddhists, and fifteen were members of Cheondogyo.
Modern Korean Christianity is still seen as a force for good in Korea today. Leaders in politics and industry, in education and medicine, in business and social service, in virtually all sectors of society are often members of a Christian church.
Korean Christianity was given a great boost in 1984 when Pope John Paul II visited Korea. He not only held Mass, but 103 Korean martyrs were canonized as saints, together with thirteen French missionary-martyrs, during his visit. The occasion was the bicentennial of Catholicism in Korea—marking the 200th anniversary of the baptism of the first Korean Catholic, in 1784 when Yi Seung-hun (1756–1801) was baptized while in China and given the Christian name of Peter.
The year 1984 also marked the centennial of the beginning of Protestant activity in Korea. Billy Graham and other Protestant leaders also visited Korea. All the activities for Christians, Catholic and Protestant, in 1984 gave Christians a great boost in the number of practitioners and in activity.
Percentages of believers are approximately equal for Buddhists and Christians. One can find government figures and Gallup poll figures that will give specific percentages to the first or second decimal point but in many ways, a general number is more meaningful, and in those terms Christian and Buddhist numbers are close to equal, each with about a fourth of the population.