Historic religious sites in Japan's Goto Islands considered for World Heritage status

The Sakitsu Church and surrounding village is shrouded in rain in Amakusa, Japan.
Hiroaki Ono

The Sakitsu Church and surrounding village is shrouded in rain in Amakusa, Japan.

From time to time, the calls of deer can be heard under the starry sky, with the only other sound on this remote island being the echoing of the waves against the shore.

Nozaki Island in the town of Ojika is located north of the Goto Islands in Nagasaki Prefecture. Made of brick, the former Nokubi Church stands on a slope where wild deer congregate and evokes a time long ago when there was once a Christian settlement here.

With the government's decision this January to recommend it for World Heritage status, the group known as the Churches and Christian Sites in Nagasaki is aiming to be registered on the UNESCO World Heritage list next year.

The group has 14 components, including the Oura Cathedral in the city of Nagasaki and the remains of Hara Castle in Minami-shimabara, which was the scene of the Shimabara Rebellion (1637-38). The former Nokubi Church is one of the components.

Graffiti, believed to have been carved recently, is seen on one of the pillars of the former Nokubi Church, on Nozaki Island. Photo: Yomiuri Shimbun photo by Hiroaki Ono

By March, the recommendation from the government had been received by UNESCO. Hereafter, a full-scale survey by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), an advisory body, will begin.

"We want to use the power of the residents to push for registration," said an official from the Foundation for the Promotion of Culture and Sports in Omura, Nagasaki Prefecture.

At the foundation, the community musical "Akai hana no kioku, tenshu-do monogatari," (A remembrance of a red flower, the story of a cathedral), which depicts the history of the introduction, suppression and revival of Christianity, was performed by citizens ages 6 to 75, who were chosen through an audition. Their performances have been fostering momentum for the registration.

Alongside the expectations, some problems have also arisen. As the number of tourists visiting the churches has risen, some breaches of etiquette, such as chatting or taking photos during Mass, have also risen. Some tourists even used the basin for holy water as an ashtray.

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"A church is a place to bow one's head and pray in silence," said Takayoshi Watanabe, 66, priest of the Sakitsu Church in Amakusa, Japan. "It is lamentable that we must post a sign asking people to respect that."

Another problem has surfaced regarding how the narrow roads and parking areas should be improved to promote tourism.

Under a starry sky, the former Nokubi Church looms over the remains of the settlement on Nozaki Island. Photo: Yomiuri Shimbun photo by Hiroaki Ono

These historic churches were born out of a crystallization of faith. As they head toward registration, the search continues for a solution to how to protect them and their surrounding areas - which even now are living spaces as well as places of worship - while also making the most of them for tourists to enjoy.

The Washington Post

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