TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - Bells tolled at the largest beatification ceremony ever held in Asia as thousands gathered on Monday to honor 188 Catholics killed in the persecution that almost wiped out Christianity in Japan four centuries ago.
As rain poured down on a baseball stadium in southern Japan, women in kimonos placed candles at a temporary altar, while clergymen, many wearing plastic raincoats over their robes, filed along a red carpet.
Beatification is a step on the way to Catholic sainthood and the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Japan said the ceremony was the largest to be held in Asia to date.
For Japan's small Catholic population, the first beatification to be held in the country since Christianity was introduced in the 16th century is long-sought recognition for their predecessors' suffering.
Participants in the ceremony at Nagasaki, a port city that was once the gateway to Japan for Christian missionaries from Europe, said the events of four centuries ago held lessons for the present day.
"We pray that those who bear the responsibility of government around the world do not seek only their own profit, but work toward world peace and respect individual dignity and human rights," one member of the congregation said at the ceremony.
Vatican envoy Cardinal Jose Saraiva read a message in Latin from Pope Benedict, who also mentioned his spiritual closeness to the martyrs in his address in Rome on Sunday.
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.
Less than 1 percent of Japanese are Christians and fewer than 500,000 are Catholic. Prime Minister Taro Aso is the first Catholic to become premier but he rarely refers to his religion in public and was not invited to the ceremony.
Many Japanese take a mix-and-match approach to religion, often favoring Christian-style weddings, Shinto blessings for children and Buddhist funerals.
Japan boasts 42 Catholic saints and 205 Catholics with ties to Japan have been beatified since the 19th century, but many were missionaries from other countries.
Monday's beatification is the culmination of three decades of efforts by Japanese Catholics to recognize more of their own martyrs. The destruction of records in Japan meant researchers had to travel overseas to study letters sent home by missionaries.
Some of those beatified on Monday were crucified then burned to death, while others were beheaded or drowned. The martyrs ranged in age from one to 80. Four were priests but most were ordinary Catholics, many of whose names are still unknown.
Editing by Miral Fahmy