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Bones of 'Last Christian Missionary Martyr' to Japan Discovered, Shedding New Light on Country's History of Christianity

( [email protected] ) Apr 07, 2016 11:46 AM EDT
The remains of a 17th-century Italian Catholic priest, known as the "last missionary martyr" to Japan for his efforts to advance Christianity in the nation, have been discovered by Japanese authorities.
Bones believed to be those of Italian missionary Giovanni Battista Sidotti are seen at the Krishitan. Photo Credit: The Japan Times

The remains of a 17th-century Italian Catholic priest, known as the "last missionary martyr" to Japan for his efforts to advance Christianity in the nation, have been discovered by Japanese authorities.

"It is the first time we've found a near match of the bones of a foreign missionary," said Waseda University professor Akio Tanigawa. "This is an extremely important discovery for the history of Christianity in Japan."

According to a report from Vatican Radio, Fr. Giovanni Battista Sidotti was born in Sicily 1668, and  eventually received permission from Pope Clement XI to become a missionary. He subsequently traveled to Japan, where Christianity was strictly forbidden during the isolationist Edo Period.

Fr. Sidotti disguised himself as a samurai upon arrival in 1708 but was discovered soon after and interrogated by Japanese authorities. However, his interrogator, an important Japanese politician, developed a great deal of respect for the outlawed missionary.

Sidotti was able to convince the Japanese politician to begin deporting Catholic missionaries, instead of putting them to death.

"Yet Fr. Giovanni Sidotti attempted to convert his guards to Catholicism and was thrown in a pit where he died of starvation, passing into legend until 150 years ago when a book about his life was found," the report explained.

While Sidotti's remains were initially discovered in 2014 during excavation at the site of Krishitan Yashiki, they were not identified as belonging to the missionary until DNA matches were confirmed on Monday, the Japan Times reported.

Officials at Bunkyo Ward, an education and residential center, said now that officials are confident about the identification, plans can be made to transport the remains to Italy.

"If there is a request to have his remains returned to Italy, we would like to discuss how to deal with this," a Bunkyo Ward official said.

Tomoko Furui, an author who has written about Sidotti and who lives on Yakushima Island in Kagoshima Prefecture, expressed her excitement over the new findings more than 300 years after his death.

"I want people in Japan and Italy to know about the meaning of Sidotti's courage to come to Japan during that time," she said.

Father Mario T. Canducci of the St. Anthony Monastery in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward told The Asahi Shimbun, a Japanese newspaper, "Sidotti was an outstanding martyr who never gave up on his missionary work. I want to ask the Vatican to re-evaluate his eligibility for canonization."

According to the CIA Factbook, Christianity to this day remains a distinct minority in Japan, making up only 1.5 percent of 126 million plus population, the majority of which practices Shintoism and Buddhism.