Seoul (AsiaNews) - The life of Alexius Hwang Sa-yeong "should be read in the light of his faith and martyrdom and from a spiritual point of view in order to interpret properly with the right spirit the choices he made," said Mgr Hyginus Kim Hee-joong, archbishop of Gwangju, at a symposium organised by the Korean Bishops' Conference to present the martyr's witness of faith.
Alexius Hwang was one of the 123 companions of Paul Yun Ji-chung. Victims of the Byeongin persecution (mid-19th century), they were proclaimed "servants of God" by Pope John Paul II in 2003. The Korean Catholic Church is waiting for their beatification, and the Bishop of Daejeon Mgr Lazarus You Heung-sik invited Pope Francis to visit Korea for the occasion.
The lives of these martyrs are a great example for the country's dynamic and growing Church. The case of Alexius Hwang is special. For a long time, he was viewed as a "traitor" by Korean nationalists for his "Silk Letter ", a message he sent to the bishop of Beijing in 1801 asking for "the help of the West" against the persecution by the Korean government. AsiaNews has already presented the lives of some of these martyrs and continues to do so with this one.
Alexius Hwang Sa-yong was born in 1775 into a noble family near present-day Seoul. Member of the nation's elite, he was admitted to the Choson Royal Court. He began to learn about Catholicism through the work of Fr Zhou Wenmo, a Chinese priest who had illegally entered Korea in December 1794. After two-year catechism, an uphill task because of social restrictions, the young man converted and became Christian.
However, Korea's ruling dynasty was fiercely opposed to the "evil cults from the West" and had set up a system of surveillance to prevent foreign missionaries from entering the country.
Somewhat protected by his physical features, Fr Zhou was able to cross the Chinese border and evangelise about 400 Koreans, many of whom were later killed for refusing to reveal where the priest was in hiding.
After his conversion, Alexius Hwang was forced into hiding along with many other faithful in Chunchong province, a region rich in natural caves Catholics could use as catacombs to escape the torture by the court.
During this period, the young convert decided to write a letter to the bishop of Beijing, Portuguese Franciscan Alexandre de Gouvea, to describe the terrible religious persecution taking place in Korea.
His letter, dated 21 October 1801, contained 13,311 characters written on a silk cloth. In it, he wrote, "There is a reason why Orientals persecute the Holy Teachings. It is not because they are harsh and violent. In fact there are two reasons. The one is the factional fight in that Catholicism is used to attack other factions, and the other is that their knowledge is very narrow and they only know Song Confucianism. They believe that the slightest deviation from it is anathema. This is like a child who has grown up only in the house and is therefore astonished when he meets a stranger."
In his missive, Hwang asked the bishop to speak to the pope to intercede with the Chinese government in order to have them, through political pressure, grant Catholics freedom of religion. Alternatively, he called for the establishment of an area for Catholics in northern Korea, "headed by a Qing imperial prince".
Finally, he proposed that Catholic nations should send an army "to subdue Choson" and force it "to accept Western priests and allow the spread of the faith throughout the kingdom."
However, a copy of the letter was intercepted when one of the messengers chosen to bring it to Beijing betrayed him and handed the document over to the authorities.
Alexius Hwang was beheaded after days of torture without ever renouncing his Catholic faith. His family was sentenced to exile to a group of outlying islands.