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South Korea owes some of its thriving modern society to Catholicism

South Korean President Park Geun-Hye talks with Pope Francis at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, Aug. 14, 2014.

Jung Yeon-je/The New York Times

Pope Francis rode away from Seoul Air Base Thursday morning in a dark grey Kia Soul, a car whose size appealed to the frugal church leader, and whose name offered a touch of serendipity for his mission to visit the many souls flocking to South Korea's growing Catholic Church.

It was the first papal visit here in 25 years, one that saw the Pope offer South Korean President Park Geun-hye a message of encouragement. "I came here thinking of peace and reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula," he said at the airport.

His visit underscored the rising strength of Catholicism in Asia, which has brought more new members to the church this year than Europe. Korean Catholics now make up more than 10 per cent of the population.

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But the pontiff's arrival also offered reason to recall the unusual history of Catholicism in South Korea, a country that owes some of its thriving modern society to a religion it initially sought to stamp out by executing its practitioners, some of whom had made radical plans for the demise of the Korean state.

Korea was, for the Catholic Church, unique from the outset. No missionary brought the faith to Korea. Instead, dignitaries visiting the Chinese court in Beijing came into contact with Jesuits, who worked at the Imperial Board of Astronomy. The Jesuits furnished the curious Koreans with copies of scientific treatises and religious works translated into Chinese, which the Korean elite could read.

"Academic interest in Christian teaching in the early days led to conversion, and the first baptism of a Korean convert took place in Peking in 1784," Takemichi Hara, a professor in the department of Japanese studies at the University of Hong Kong, wrote in a 1998 paper. When the first Chinese Catholic priest snuck in to Korea a decade later, he found about 4,000 converts.

Korea was then a deeply Confucian country, and Christianity was labelled "evil teaching." Believers were often executed – including both the first Korean convert and the first priest to sneak in – and official fear of the foreign religion was only accentuated upon the discovery of a letter, written in silk, in 1801 from a young Korean aristocrat.

The letter, to the Bishop of Peking, described how Christians were being persecuted and asked for foreign powers to help, either through the Chinese annexation of Korea or the "dispatch of a few hundred European ships and several tens of thousands of soldiers to protect the peaceful propagation of Christianity," according to Mr. Hara. The "silk letter" incident, as it would come to be known, caused a crisis in the Korean court, but no invasion.

Despite continued oppression, Christianity continued to gain strength in Korea, driven by interest among curious minds eager for an alternative to Confucianism.

"The young educated Koreans, the crème de la crème of their elite, were reading Christian books," said Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul. Christianity "was a part of the modernity package," he said.

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"Christians established pretty much all modern schools in Korea. If you wanted to get an education in civil engineering, modern medicine, astronomy, you name it – until roughly 1920, you had only one way: missionary-run schools."

Catholicism was dominant until the late 1800s, when Methodist and other Protestant missionaries began to arrive from the United States. They extended the social change brought by Christianity, providing Korean women a modern education and helping to educate the country's first female doctor.

But the Catholic Church helped to distribute foreign contributions to rebuild South Korea after the Korean War, and went on to play a key role in one of the most important forces to reshape the country: democracy. Leading democracy activists in the 1950s were Catholic, and organizations like the Young Catholic Workers' Association rose to prominence in the 1970s, when they agitated for union and workers' rights.

The Catholic Church in South Korea financially supported student groups who opposed the military autocracy of Park Chung-hee, and "Myeongdong Cathedral, the major Catholic church of the country, also served as a shelter for all kinds of anti-government activities," Mr. Lankov has written.

In 1987, hundreds of protesters sought safety in that cathedral, with priests pledging to stand between them and a threatened attack by police.

"The attack did not happen, the generals soon resigned from power and Korea became a democracy," Mr. Lankov wrote. "The role played by the Catholics … in this change was truly remarkable."

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