When Pope Francis visits the Republic of Korea starting Thursday, he isn't merely dropping in on the Asian Youth Day celebrations organized by Catholics in the region. The pontiff is also touching down in a religious "melting pot" and an emerging center of Christianity in Asia.
While the Philippines remains Asia's most-Christian nation, Korea is an "unlikely pillar" of Christian faith, Agence France-Presse reports.
"In the last national census to include religious affiliation, conducted in 2005, close to 30 percent of South Koreans identified themselves as Christian, compared to 23 percent who cited the once-dominant Buddhism. The majority are Protestants, but Catholics are the fastest-growing group, with around 5.3 million adherents — just over 10 percent of the population," AFP reported.
According to The Boston Globe, Korea's Buddhists and Christians get along quite nicely, with banners reading "Happy Birthday, Baby Jesus" hanging from Buddhist temples during the Christmas season, and Catholic congregations sending greetings to Buddhist neighbors on Buddha's birthday.
"We’re the melting pot of religions," Wonjun Woo of the Hannim Biblical Institute in Seoul told the Globe. "South Korea is the only nation where Buddhism and Christianity coexist with equal power."
It wasn't always the case: Hundreds of Korean Catholics were martyred in the 18th and 19th centuries because Confucians at the time viewed Christianity as "subversive and barbaric," the AFP account noted. One report indicates as many as 10,000 Korean Catholics were killed during the persecution under the Joseon Dynasty, whose rule ended when Japan annexed Korea in 1910.
During his visit, Francis will beatify 124 Korean martyrs at an open-air Mass, the last step before a person is declared a saint. In 1984, St. John Paul II, then pope, canonized more than 100 other martyrs.
"I was baptized as an infant, and I've been a Catholic for about 50 years, but I've been asking myself whether I could do" what the martyrs did, Kim Dong Sup, a 55-year-old office worker from a prominent Catholic family that includes 13 martyrs told the Associated Press. "What they did was incredible," he added.
A descendant of Kwon Sang-yeon, one of Korea's first Catholic martyrs, is now an officer, or minister, in the Salvation Army, a Protestant movement that arrived in Korea in 1908. Kwon Sungil, age 58, didn't realize his family history until a church researcher informed him, the report said.
Upon learning this, he told the AP, "I realized that it was my ancestor's will that I should be in ministry."
Meanwhile, Catholic leaders are a bit in awe of the pope's pending presence. "There's more than meets the eye and pretense does not work for Pope Francis," the Korea Times quotes Nazarius Yoo Heung-sik, Roman Catholic bishop of Daejeon. "I am excited over the pope's visit as much as I dread it. Pope Francis raised the bar for the life of priests and bishops. I aim to live like the pope, but I am insufficient to live like him."
While much of the focus has been on Catholics in recent days, other churches have found fertile soil in Korea. An Assemblies of God congregation, Yoido Full Gospel Church, is reportedly the world's largest, with 830,000 members. The Seventh-day Adventist Church boasts 232,559 members in Korea, where it operates a number of English-language schools as well as the noted Sahmyook University.
And The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a growing cohort in South Korea, where its missionary work attracted the attention of The New York Times earlier this year.