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SEOUL, South Korea – They died well over a century ago, but the 124 Korean Catholic martyrs who will be honored by Pope Francis this week still have a hold over many of their descendants — even some who learned of their sacrifices only in recent years, or whose families are now Buddhist or Protestant.
It will be a proud moment for them Saturday when Francis beatifies the martyrs, in the last step before canonization, or sainthood. Yet for some, it's also overwhelming to know that someone in their family was willing to die for their faith.
"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, said Kim Dong Sup, a 55-year-old office worker from a prominent Catholic family that includes 13 martyrs. "What they did was incredible."
Kim has a relic from one of those martyrs: a fingernail-sized piece of spine, mounted on a cross, from Kim Tae-gon, Korea's first Roman Catholic priest. He was beheaded in 1846 at age 25 for attempting to help foreign missionaries enter the country, and his bones were later divided and kept by hundreds of Catholics.
The 124 martyrs perished from 1791 to 1888. Catholic officials believe that, in all, about 10,000 Korean Catholics were executed by the Joseon Dynasty, which tried to shut the Korean Peninsula off from Western influence. The dynasty's rule ended in 1910, when Japan annexed Korea and began its 35-year colonization.
Today, the South Korean church accounts for more than 10 percent of the country's population of 50 million, and the local church hopes for continued growth. But as in Europe, the church here has been affected by an increasingly secular and materialistic culture and by competition from other faiths. Church officials lament that South Korean youths are so pressed to excel at school that they don't have time to go to church.
During his five-day visit, which begins Thursday, Francis is expected to encourage young Catholics to spread the faith and not get caught up in what he often calls a materialistic, "throwaway" culture. It's the first papal visit to South Korea in 25 years.
Kim Tae-gon and more than 100 other martyrs were canonized — meaning they were declared saints — during a 1984 visit by Pope John Paul II, who returned in South Korea in 1989.
Two more of Kim Dong Sup's ancestors are to be beatified this week; both refused to renounce their faith. One died in prison in 1814. The other, who was beheaded in 1816, transcribed religious books by hand to distribute to believers and taught Catholicism at his home.
Catholicism took hold in Korea in the late 18th century among those who had read imported books on the religion — years before foreign missionaries started coming to Korea. Historians say early believers were struck by the idea of a religion that preached universal equality in divine eyes at a time when the nobility's discriminatory hierarchical system brutally exploited ordinary people.
Park Geun Tae, a reverend at a Seoul Catholic church, said the emergence of Catholicism in Korea was seen by some as liberation from a system where some of the lowest-class believers had been "treated like animals." Catholics were persecuted for allegedly disrupting the social order, plotting treason, denying the Joseon Dynasty's legitimacy and seeking help from foreign powers to spread Christianity.
The religious crackdowns caused families to scatter around the country to avoid persecution. Many stopped passing on their beliefs to their descendants, and analysts say some families were likely completely exterminated. Descendants of only 24 of the 124 martyrs will attend the beatification ceremony Saturday in Seoul because relatives of the other martyrs could not be found, according to the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Korea.
Paul Yoon, a 56-year-old who runs a business supplying electronic products to U.S. army bases, said he only found out about his relation to a martyr about seven years ago, after his wife discovered lineage records.
"I was surprised, but I also felt a heavy burden because I wasn't leading a devout religious life," Yoon said.
South Korean Catholic officials say Yoon's ancestor, Yun Ji-chung, is the first Korean martyr. He was beheaded in 1791 with his cousin, Kwon Sang-yeon, for refusing to follow traditional ancestral memorial practices. Both are to be beatified.
Yoon doubts that his late parents ever knew about the family's history, but he recently found that a Buddhist descendant of Yun holds annual memorial services for him at a Catholic church.
A descendant of Kwon is now a Salvation Army officer in southern Chungcheong province. Kwon Sungil didn't know about his ancestor until 2005 when church history researchers informed him.
"I realized that it was my ancestor's will that I should be in ministry," said the 58-year-old Kwon.
AP writer Nicole Winfield contributed to this story from Rome.