By Giles Hewitt ,AFP
SEOUL — When Pope Francis visits South Korea next week, he will find a thriving Catholic community with a social and political influence that belies its minority status in one of Christianity’s most muscular Asian strongholds. The visit will recognize the vicious persecution of early Korean Catholics, with the beatification by Francis of 124 martyrs executed for their faith in the 18th and 19th centuries. And the pope will also look to North Korea, where religion is subject to the tightest state control, when he offers a special mass for inter-Korean peace and reconciliation. For many first-time visitors to Seoul, a common take-away memory is the surprising multitude of neon crosses glowing across the South Korean capital’s nightscape. The theory that prosperity and socio-economic development tend to breed secularism holds little water in a country where modernity appears to have fueled religiosity. Korean Christianity is particularly pro-active and evangelical, sending more missionaries abroad than any other country apart from the United States. In the last national census to include religious affiliation, conducted in 2005, close to 30 percent of South Koreans identified themselves as Christian, compared to 23 percent who cited the once-dominant Buddhism. The majority are Protestants, but Catholics are the fastest-growing group, with around 5.3 million adherents — just over 10 percent of the population.