05/11/2010, 00.00
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Fr. James Sinnott, returns to Korea after his expulsion

by Pino Cazzaniga
The life of a Maryknoll priest, 81 years, his early mission, expulsion from Korea during the dictatorship of Park. His return, as part of the "Truth Commission" responsible for investigating crimes of the time, including the death sentence of eight activists.

Seoul (AsiaNews) - In early May, Maryknoll missionaries in Seoul celebrate the 50th anniversary of ordination to the priesthood for four of them. All - except one - have spent fifty years here in Korea. The exception is the missionary James Sinnott (81), who after 15 years had to interrupt his mission because the dictatorial government of the time would not renew his visa. This was his martyrdom.


From the barracks at the missionary seminary

During his lifetime Fr James never strayed from the path that he had set before himself, if indeed his lifestory is somewhat anomalous, as it certainly has been, is due to the fact that he has been consistent with himself even in exceptional circumstances and times.

Born in 1929, his parents wanted him to have a quality moral and intellectual education, choosing schools governed by the Jesuits in New York and Washington (Georgetown University). He was still a teenager when he first felt the call to missions in his heart, but waited to until after a period of military service. At 25, he interrupted his medical studies, which he had undertaken without much success, to enter the Maryknoll Missionary seminary in his hometown. He recalls those years with good humour. "I had no crises of adjustment, he says, because the seminary was not too different from the barracks."


From New York to Seoul

Maryknoll Institute, founded in 1911, the Vatican had entrusted the evangelization of the territories of China, Japan and Korea. This became James’ destiny, who instead dreamt of Africa.

A pleasant three weeks crossing the Pacific and the short tour of Japan, but then the ship pointed towards Inchon, the port that opens up to Seoul, the Korean capital. Here the romance vanished altogether, seven years earlier in the civil war (1950-53) had ended with an armistice, a war which had destroyed the structures in the country, north and south, and created hatred in their hearts.

The study of a language, Korean, which requires a thorough brainwashing and a long-continued effort of memory for many months, kept the young missionary busy.


Missionary Islands

"If not Africa at least the country," he thought, but his second wish had to be shelved. While the three classmates were packed off to the province of Cheongju which at the time was countryside, James, a citizen of New York was sent to the city of Inchon. The bishop, a member of the Maryknoll religious family, entrusted him with the care of a district composed of several islands near the port.

"It was a very active parish – he recalls – consisting of a set of eight islands inhabited by very poor people, who had fled from the North. I was always on the ferries from island to island. I really loved those people. "

Sinnot’s first mission was to obtain medical care for the poor people of these islands. "If someone was seriously ill, -her recalls- , sometimes we had to wait a day to be transported on a ferry.  Death would come first”.  Finally, a doctor was assigned to Youngjungdo Island, the principal island.  He was a good Catholic and we were in perfect agreement. The doctor, who as a young man had entered the seminary used to say: "I am a frustrated priest" and James, in return, "and I was a frustrated doctor. Together they worked to establish a small clinic and healthcare greatly improved”.


From missionary to activist

"At that time - says Sinnott - all priests were discouraged from engaging in politics. They were to concern themselves with the poor". But news filtered through from the immense metropolis of Seoul that opened the missionary’s eyes and brought him to a crisis. Korea was a primitive country and Sinnot was convinced that here the poverty was the result of misguided policies. Silence in such circumstances, it was a virtue.

He saw the workers who worked long hours in miserable conditions, with minimum wages, while South Korea was building its "economic miracle" and increased foreign trade with huge production of manufactured goods.

From outside Korea appeared to be a fully developed nation with strong anti-communist leaders. One day James read that a young Protestant minister with his wife and young children were jailed for protesting against human rights abuses by President Park Chung-hee.

The internal crisis was inevitable. "Here I am fat and happy. Unmarried and without responsibilities like theirs. And yet I was sent to be parish priest and help the poor. I was not sent to engage in politics. "

An unstable equilibrium that had to be resolved. The decision was in favour of activism. He began to spend more time in Seoul and to participate in protest movements against the violation of human rights. His parishioners encouraged him. Sinnot attracted media attention, especially the Washington Post and The New York Times, an attitude that irritated the military dictatorship.


The clash of two opposing destinies

Sinnott’s missionary activity in this country (1960-75) unfolded almost parallel to the most inflexible rule of a military dictator that South Korea has ever known: Park Chung-hee (1961-79). A few months after the arrival of missionaries in Seoul an uprising of students of immense proportions forced President Singman Ree to resign.

General Park took the reins of government, welcomed with relief by most people. Having grasped the presidency of the nation, he maintained power by manipulating elections until through various changes he transformed it into a dictatorship in the early 70s through the Yushin Constitution, which literally means "constitution for revitalization." Sinnot and many Democrats termed it "martial law". From that day on, no one could contradict the government on pain of arrest or worse, hanging. Many ended up in prison.

The missionary realized he was the voice of the voiceless because he was a U.S. citizen and priest of the highly regarded Catholic Church. And he acted accordingly with Protestant pastors organizing a march in the city centre, a procession in front of U.S. embassy during the visit of President Ford in November 1974, an 11 hour sit-in with a group of wives of imprisoned activists. Speaking of this sit-in Sinnott said: "those 11 hours of conversation changed my life."

Throughout his period as an activist the Maryknoll congregation, “never told me to stop, recalls James, but only to control my temper. I am grateful to them. "


The tragic death of eight prisoners, the expulsion of Fr Sinnot

Eight activists remained in jail accused of belonging to the People's Revolutionary Party, "a party that never existed," says Sinnot. Put on trial, they were sentenced to death.

George Ogle, an American Methodist minister, began collecting evidence in favour of the condemned and succeeded in convincing United States parliamentarians to come to Korea to inform American public opinion and influence on Park. These ensured that the sentence will not be carried out.  But in early 1975 Ogle was expelled from Korea on 8 April the Supreme Court confirmed the sentence. The next morning the eight were put to death.  It was a huge shock to the missionary and relatives. Three weeks after Sinnot was informed that his visa had expired and would not be renewed. He had two days to leave the country. The group of eight women, taking their leave of him, ask him to speak about what is happening in their country. "It 's what I did in all these years in New York, Washington and Chile."

Suffering from myeloma, which required surgery and chemotherapy, he was unable to continue his missionary activity. But in 2005 he returned to Korea, appointed a member of the "Truth Commission" to investigate incidents that occurred 30 years before, during the Park administration.

Two years ago the High Court ruled that the eight men who were executed were innocent. "Although it is too late for these men - notes Marta Vichery, essayist of Korean Quarterly - that day was important for Sinnot, friends and relatives of those men who died long ago, despite or because of their innocence."

For the past three years the missionary activist has spent his days in the two small rooms of the house was home to him 50 years ago, praying, painting and writing poetry.

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