Remains of first Korean Catholic martyrs recovered

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The remains of the first Korean Catholic martyrs have been recovered 230 years after they were executed (AFP/JEON HEON-KYUN)

The remains of the first Korean Catholic martyrs have been recovered, church officials said Wednesday, 230 years after they were executed and seven years since they were beatified.

Religious belief is widespread in South Korea, with churches dotting the country's cities, towns and villages.

But the Joseon dynasty, which ruled the Korean peninsula for over 500 years until its annexation by Japan in 1910, ruthlessly persecuted Catholic believers after the religion was introduced in the 18th century, seeing Catholicism as a threat to its hierarchical social system, which was rooted in neo-Confucianism.

Paul Yun Ji-chung, 32, and James Kwon Sang-yeon, 40, were the first of thousands to die, beheaded in 1791.

Their remains were found in March near Jeonju, south of Seoul, during work to convert another grave into a sanctuary.

Also located were the remains of Yun's younger brother Francis Yun Ji-heon, who was quartered aged 37, a decade after his brother was put to death.

A thorough investigation including historical research and DNA testing showed a match with the three martyrs, the Diocese of Jeonju said.

The remains of Francis Yun "show clear signs of dismemberment", it added.

The discovery was "a truly surprising and monumental event", said Bishop John Kim Son-tae, head of the Jeonju Diocese.

Paul Yun was firm in his belief until the last moment, he added, citing historical records describing him as "smiling as if he was on his way to a party" as he was dragged to the execution site.

"He was beheaded calling out 'Jesus, Maria'," he said.

"We have found the remains of those who first set the history of martyrdom for our church, which was founded on the blood of the martyrs."

All three were beatified by Pope Francis on his visit to South Korea in 2014.

There are 5.9 million Catholics in the country, according to the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Korea, accounting for 11.2 percent of the population.

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