Pope Francis has called for a world free of nuclear weapons as he visited Nagasaki, the second city in history to suffer an atomic bombing and the site of mass executions in the 16th century when Christianity was expelled from Japan.
The rare papal visit to Japan — the first in almost 40 years — came with a strong political message, highlighting the nuclear stand-off with North Korea and the US withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which threatens to spark a nuclear arms race in Asia.
Speaking through heavy rain at the Nagasaki Hypocentre Park, where the second nuclear bomb exploded on August 9, 1945 and killed 150,000 people, Pope Francis said: “One of the deepest longings of the human heart is for security, peace and stability. The possession of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction is not the answer to this desire.”
The pontiff warned of an erosion in multilateral co-operation, “which is all the more serious in light of the growth of new forms of military technology”.
Christians are a small minority in Japan, making up 1 per cent of the population, with Catholics comprising just 0.4 per cent. Some local media have interpreted the papal visit as an effort to proselytise, but Hitoshi Kawanaka, dean of the theology department at Sofia University, said he doubted that was the main purpose. “Instead, [the pope] wants to send a strong message to the world through Japan.”
On Monday, the pope is expected to meet Emperor Naruhito and Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister. He is also expected to speak out against the death penalty, and may meet Iwao Hakamada, who spent 48 years on death row before new DNA evidence led to the suspension of his sentence. Opinion polls show strong support for the death penalty in Japan.
Catholicism first came to Japan in the 16th century and spread rapidly before it was savagely suppressed by the authorities, in events charted by Martin Scorsese’s film Silence, based on the novel by Shusaku Endo. Pope Francis said that as a young Jesuit he “found powerful inspiration in the story of the early missionaries and the Japanese martyrs”.
When missionaries returned in 1865, they found small groups of “hidden Christians”, who had kept their faith alive in secret. “Christianity was banned in Japan for 259 years,” said Nakamaro Abe, a Catholic theologian. “The Pope respects those people who kept Christianity alive in Japan and I think he wants to show his thanks.”
After Japan reopened to the world in the 19th century, it was more influenced by Protestant missionaries coming from the US. But that is changing as Japan experiences rising immigration from countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines.
Those immigrants swell a native Catholic population that is slowly declining but has not seen the same collapse of religiosity as Europe. “The difference with Europe is that the number of people who are anti-religious is very small,” said Prof Kawanaka. “Religion isn’t seen as a strong opponent you need to fight.”
After celebrating mass for 30,000 congregants at the local baseball stadium in Nagasaki, Pope Francis flies to Hiroshima to visit the site of the first nuclear bombing in 1945. He returns to Rome on Tuesday.