OSAKA--A descendant of "hidden" Christians himself, Cardinal Manyo Maeda hailed the awarding of World Heritage status to sites related to the persecution of Japanese Christians during the Edo Period (1603-1867).

UNESCO's World Heritage Committee made the decision at a meeting in Bahrain on June 30.

“It conveys a major message about how essential religious faith is,” said Maeda, 69, recently elevated to cardinal, the second-highest post in the Catholic Church.

The registration of the “Hidden Christian sites in Nagasaki and Amakusa region” will mark Japan’s 22nd World Heritage site.

The sites testify to how Japanese Christians secretly continued to practice their faith despite the Tokugawa Shogunate’s ban on the religion from the 17th to 19th centuries.

The sites are located mainly in Nagasaki Prefecture with one location also in the Amakusa district of neighboring Kumamoto Prefecture.

Maeda’s ancestors were hidden Christians in Hisakajima island, one of the Goto islands in Nagasaki Prefecture, which is part of the sites that were awarded World Heritage status.

His great-grandfather had been persecuted in the early Meiji Era (1868-1912), right before the ban was lifted. The great-grandfather’s three younger sisters were martyred when they were imprisoned for embracing Christianity.

Maeda had once served at a church on the island where his relatives were martyred.

He said people will be able to learn much from the history of hidden Christians, such as “human rights, including the preciousness of life and freedom of religious beliefs, and the importance of having a dialogue (with people who don't share similar values).”

Maeda said some of his ancestors were among those who persecuted Christians.

He also noted the existence of many who were forced to renounce their Christian faith in the face of brutal oppression, who he understands had no choice but to do so.

The history of hidden Christians, he said, ultimately boils down to forgiveness and atonement.

“The registration contains something deep and profound in that a true peace for people arrives when they live paying respect to one another,” he said.

Some Christians have expressed concerns that receiving World Heritage status will draw hordes of tourists to the site, and the growing crowds could undermine its role as a venue for offering prayers.

But Maeda remains optimistic.

He said he has taken a favorable view of a local campaign for seeking the World Heritage listing since the push started more than a decade ago when he served at a church in Hirado, Nagasaki Prefecture.

He believes that the World Heritage inclusion will give visitors more opportunities to think about Christian churches and teachings.