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TOKYO (Reuters) - Four centuries after they died for their faith, 188 Japanese Catholic martyrs will be honored by the church next week in a ceremony to recall the bloody persecution that almost stamped out Christianity in Japan.
About 30,000 people, including a Vatican envoy, are expected to gather Monday in a baseball stadium in Nagasaki, southern Japan, for the largest beatification ceremony ever held in Asia. Beatification is a step on the way to Catholic sainthood.
For Japan's small Catholic population, the first beatification ceremony to be held in the country since Christianity was introduced in the 16th century is long-sought recognition for their ancestors' pain and struggle.
"These people were the foundation of Catholicism in Japan," said Megumi Yamamoto, a 47-year-old Catholic housewife who plans to attend the ceremony. "Because they existed and passed on their religion to us, we can exist in Japan today."
Many in Japan take a mix-and-match approach to religion, often favoring Christian-style weddings, Shinto blessings for children and Buddhist funerals.
Less than 1 percent are Christians and fewer than 500,000 are Catholic. Prime Minister Taro Aso is the first Catholic to head the country, but he rarely refers to his religion in public and was not invited to the ceremony.
First brought to Japan in 1549 by Francis Xavier, a Jesuit missionary active across Asia, Christianity was banned by feudal lords fearful that foreign influence would undermine their power.
A period of persecution followed, forcing the faithful to choose between martyrdom or hiding their beliefs. At least 5,500 Christians are believed to have been killed for their faith in Japan.
Others practiced their rites in secret and blended them with local beliefs, a hybrid faith that has trickled down to the present day in remote parts of southern Japan.
Since the 19th century, 205 Catholics with ties to Japan have been beatified, but many were missionaries from other countries.
Monday's beatification is the culmination of three decades of efforts by Japanese Catholics to recognize their own.
Some of those to become blessed martyrs were crucified then burned to death. Some were beheaded or drowned.
Identifying those killed was complicated by the destruction of records in Japan, which meant researchers had to travel overseas to study letters sent home by missionaries.
The martyrs ranged in age from one to 80. Four were priests but most were ordinary Catholics, many of whose names are still unknown.
"They were killed 400 years ago, but send a very important message," Vatican representative Cardinal Jose Saraiva told reporters Friday.
"This is a clear invitation to the Japanese Catholic lay people to live their faith deeply in everyday life and be ready also if there is necessity, to give their life."
Editing by Rodney Joyce