Pope Francis to take message of peace to Korea on first Asia trip

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Pope Francis’ five-day visit to South Korea will be the first time in a quarter-century that a pope has been on the divided Korean peninsula, and the pontiff plans to bring a message of peace and reconciliations to Koreans on both sides

Pope Francis will beatify more than 120 South Korean martyrs who were brutally murdered for refusing to give up their Catholic faith on his first visit to Asia this week.

The grisly early history of the Catholic Church in South Korea will be at centre-stage during the Argentinean Pope’s five-day trip, which begins on Wednesday when he flies from Rome to Seoul.

Beatification is the last step before canonisation, or sainthood.

The Pope will on Saturday honour the 124 martyrs, who were killed by state authorities between 1791 and 1888, as Korea tried to resist influence from the West.

Some were tortured and beheaded while others died in prison after refusing to renounce their faith.

They were persecuted because the Joseon Dynasty, which ruled the country at the time, saw them a as a threat, accusing them of disrupting the social order and of seeking help from foreign powers and missionaries to disseminate Christianity – viewed by the dynasty as treason.

Around 10,000 Korean Catholics are believed to have been killed by the dynasty before its rule came to an end in 1910, when Japan annexed and colonised Korea.

The Pope will meet with descendants of some of the martyrs, on a visit which will affirm the growing strength of Catholicism in Asia.

It is the first pontifical visit to South Korea in 25 years – Pope John Paul II came to the country in 1989.

The Jesuit pontiff will also meet with elderly “comfort women” – Koreans forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army during the Second World War – as well as the relatives of students who died in this year’s ferry disaster.

More than 300 passengers, most of them school children, died when the Sewol ferry sank in April, in South Korea’s worst maritime disaster in decades.

One of the main themes of the Pope’s visit will be to call for reconciliation between the two Koreas, which have been divided since the end of the Korean War.

The visit is the Pope’s third overseas trip – he went to Brazil last summer and to the Holy Land earlier this year.

He is already planning a return trip to Asia – the Vatican says he will travel of the Philippines and Sri Lanka in January.

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