The Oura Church of Nagasaki, which became a World Heritage Site in 2018, is the symbol of the rebirth of Christianity in Japan, a must-see for the history of the "hidden Christians" who came there to reveal their faith and put end to more than 250 years of clandestinity.
Considered one of the oldest in Japan, Oura is one of the 12 "Places of hidden Christians in the Nagasaki region" of the Unesco list, which includes several temples in the region, including the remote Goto islands, and a ancient settlement of this community in the neighboring province of Kumamoto.
The church was built in 1864 by the French missionary Bernard-Thadee Petitjean (1829-1884), shortly after the port of Nagasaki was reopened to the outside along with the borders of Japan after more than two centuries of isolation.
With the veto imposed in 1614 on Christianity in the Asian country then in force and the presumption that the Japanese Christian community had disappeared after the brutal persecution suffered in the seventeenth century, the temple was intended for the growing number of foreign believers who resided in the city of the Japanese southwest.
Less than a month after the consecration ceremony there was a surprising event. On March 17, 1865 a group of peasants from Urakami, an area of western Nagasaki where Christians secretly practiced their religion while pretending to exercise indigenous creeds, went to church and revealed their faith.
The first to speak was Isabelina Yuri Sugimoto and the scene of the event, which has been called the "discovery of the hidden Christians", was immortalized in a mural that can still be seen today in the garden on the way to the entrance of the church .
The revelation led the Japanese authorities to resume repression against believers until criticism from Western countries led to the lifting of the ban in 1873.
With the reintroduction of Christianity in Japan some "kakure kirishitan" (hidden Christians) rejoined the Church and Christians today represent less than 1% of the population.
Others did not recognize Catholicism as the original faith of their ancestors. Centuries of concealment and isolation had transformed their religion into a totally different cult.
Proof of this are some of the relics kept by the museum adjoining the concatedral, located in an old seminary in 1875.
When Japanese Christians were left without a pastor, tortured and murdered by refusing to renounce the Christian faith, they created their own authorities and hid their images of devotion.
The museum collects several statues of the Virgin Mary portrayed as Kannon, the Buddhist representation of mercy, with which the "hidden Christians" wanted to "avoid being discovered", or the staffs that the religious leaders had to wear in the ceremonies, explains the Conservative center, Minako Uchijima.
Many crucifixes whose meaning was in many cases unknown by these devotees have been found in ancient settlements, of which it is believed that there could have been more than 200.
"The people who maintained the faith as their ancestors were happy when they removed the prohibition of Christianity and they are also now after the designation as patrimony, because it recognizes the value of what they have been keeping," he told Efe Uchijima.
The rooms of the gallery also document the persecution of this group committed by the shoguns, the dynasty of military leaders who ruled the Asian country between 1603 and 1868.
All Nagasaki was forced to submit to the "efumi", a practice that forced to step on an image of the Virgin or Jesus, and to which some believers submitted so as not to lose their lives. It is believed that around 5,500 Christians were killed at the time.
One of the most memorable chapters is the crucifixion in February 1597 of 26 martyrs on a hill in Nagasaki, including four Spanish missionaries, one Portuguese and one Mexican. On the altar of the church Oura hangs a canvas that recalls the episode.
The desire of Father Petitjean was to build the temple in that place, but the authorities did not allow it. Instead he chose his current location and oriented the church facing the hill.