Nearly every time we raise money for persecuted believers in closed countries, Open Doors receives an email or social media post asking one question: Are there really underground churches in the most hostile regions of the world?
It’s a fair question. When the average American encounters headlines about places like North Korea, they often reveal tragic stories about defectors or hunger issues. Given the control that leaders like Kim Jong-Un have over religious practice in these societies, it’s understandably hard to imagine how Christian churches could operate.
And yet they do.
Faith sometimes thrives in hardship
Ironically, not only does Christianity exist, but periods of repression and hardship sometimes even prompt people to seek God most intensely. This makes sense to many of us, since we too might be more likely to run to God when we are sick or afraid or facing challenges.
But it raises a second question: In countries where it’s literally illegal to be a Christian, how does the Christian faith even get there to begin with?
There are many explanations for how Christianity takes hold in closed countries. In some cases, faith has been passed on for generations by families whose ancestors trusted Jesus prior to the country coming under oppressive rule. As years or even decades pass, many older Christians do not forget their faith, but intentionally pass it on to their children and grandchildren.
Other times, restricted regions are influenced by missionaries or foreign travelers who visit their country and pass the gospel along to them. In addition, citizens themselves have often traveled abroad and have come to know Jesus and then returned home to share their newfound faith.
How Christianity came to North Korea
In the case of Koreas, for example, readers may be surprised to learn how long Christianity has existed in this region. Christian ideas trickled into Korea as early as 1603 thanks to people like Korean diplomat, Yi Gwang-jeong, who traveled widely and brought jesuit Christian books back to the region. By 1801, Catholic Christians were a large enough force that the Queen, Jeongsun, targeted them as a threat to her family’s power. And by 1883, the first Protestant church was publicly established by a presbyterian missionary named Horace Newton Allen.
Christianity continued to spread–slowly at first, and then more rapidly after Korea was freed from Japanese occupation in 1945. Many Koreans embraced Protestant missionaries who established schools and hospitals.
In fact, prior to the Korean War, the majority of Christians actually lived in the northern part of Korea. It wasn’t until after the Soviet Union and China began to dominate the region that many Christians reportedly fled to south Korea in pursuit of religious freedom.
While the outside world may not know the exact number of Christians who stayed in North Korea, we know some did stay. “We estimate there are between 200,000 – 400,000 total,” One of our Open Doors field representatives recently told us.
These Christians, he says, are broken into several groups dispersed around the country. One group is made up of believers who were banished to remote areas or forced into labor camps after they were exposed. “Some of them are held in closed off villages where they do ‘light’ forced labor and cannot move beyond the borders of the village,” He explains, “Then we estimate that over a million North Koreans have been to China and returned. Most of them came into touch with Christianity while there. How many came to faith and shared the Gospel with their family members? We don’t know. It should be at least a 100,000 more, possibly even 300,000.”
In addition to there being several different groups of Christians in North Korea, there are also several kinds of underground church communities. “One is the casual meeting. You see someone outside, you know that other person is a brother, you look at each other. That’s all. That’s your entire service.”
“The second type would be in a home.” Typically, he explains, this kind of church is hosted by a family who have one or more children. The family’s house is rarely, if ever, ideal for public gatherings. It usually contains just one bedroom and a small living room. And, even if a group of people can cram into the small space, they must be vigilant about keeping the noise down. Neighbors easily pick up when something is going on as houses are built close together and the walls of the structures are often thin.
It’s best when these families live near the woods so they can hide their copy of the Bible if they have one. The field rep describes what life is like for a local believer, “It’s after midnight. The two youngest children are sleeping. You sneak out, dig up your Bible and bring it back inside. The curtains are pulled and very, very softly do you read to your wife and 16 year old son. You’ve only recently shared the gospel with him. Now he’s old and wise enough not to accidentally betray you. Of course, he didn’t understand the gospel at first, but you’re teaching him. You’ve been praying for years that he’d be ready.”
“You read the Bible in the dark, you pray, the words are hardly audible. Do you sing in whispers? When you’re in a bold mood.”
He also considers prison to be a type of church. A believer may be locked up with 40 others prisoners in a confined, uncomfortable space. There are usually wooden floors with many cracks that fill the room with ice cold air in the winter and very hot air in the summer. Lice and bugs get in too. But, the field rep says, there’s often “one brave Christian who shares the gospel with others and prays, knowing that she will be punished for that.”
In all three of these types of churches, our field rep assures us there are people “risking their lives to distribute aid and support to and inside North Korea.”
“God has called us to do this work. The North Korean Christians are far more dedicated than us. In a sense, they are spiritually much stronger than we are.” He explains, “Some of them – especially young believers – don’t know the Bible that well. Their understanding of the Bible may be limited but their faith runs deep. There are so many unknown heroes in North Korea and they are able to withstand torture.”
There REALLY are Christians in the most unbelievable places.
So are there really Christians in the world’s most restricted regions? And can we actually help them? The answer is a resounding yes on both counts.
Every community of Christians has their own origin story. Each of them is unique as God often does unusual and miraculous things to make himself known even in the worst of circumstances. And many Christians in these areas have found such hope and peace in God that they are wiling to risk—and sometimes sacrifice—their lives to ensure the gospel is never silenced.
In the end, we at Open Doors are thankful when our readers ask questions like this so we can better explain the important work we do and how people in the free world can partner with us to truly make a difference.
As you read on our website, if there’s something you wonder about, I’d love to hear from you too.