Pope Francis arrived Aug. 14, in South Korea, calling for peace and dialogue between the two Koreas. His five-day visit was the first time a Pope has visited the Korean Peninsula in 25 years. His visit coincided with the appeals of two detained American Christians, Kenneth Bae and Jeffrey Fowle, both arrested in North Korea for their religious affiliations.
Bae, detained in Nov 2012 while leading a tour group, was reportedly carrying a number of propaganda materials at the time of his arrest. The charges included plotting “Operation Jericho”, an alleged plan, drawing its name from the biblical story about the city being conquered when its walls suddenly collapsed.
Recently, on August 12, CNN reported that Korean-American Kenneth Bae’s health has significantly deteriorated due to strenuous work in a labor camp, and that he has been moved to a hospital. This is the third time in less than two years that Bae has been hospitalized. Bae, a missionary and businessman, was officially sentenced in April to 15 years in a North Korean labor camp for “hostile acts to bring down its government.”
Jeffrey Fowle, aged 56, was detained in May of this year for alleged hostile acts that violated his tourist status after leaving a Bible in a nightclub in the northern port city of Chongjin. In June, South Korean missionary Kim Jeong-wook was sentenced to life in prison and hard labor after being found guilty of espionage and setting up an underground church.
According the United Nations, between 80,000 and 120,000 prisoners are detained in political prison camps throughout North Korea. This represents approximately 1 in every 200 citizens of the DPRK.
Activists hoped Pope Francis’ trip to South Korea would provide a valuable opportunity to draw attention to the North’s persistent human rights abuses. “He is in a unique position to speak for the voiceless people of the world’s most closed nation, and to pray for peace, freedom and justice- and to draw the world’s attention to this tragic and often overlooked human tragedy,” British Lord David Alton, told the Register.
Alton believes the visit had the potential to be as effective as Pope John Paul II’s nine-day historic visit to Poland in 1979 that helped sow the seeds for the collapse of Soviet Communism. Benedict Rogers of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which campaigns for religious freedom, said, “To be a Christian in North Korea is extremely dangerous, and many Christians who are discovered end up in the prison camps, or in some cases, executed. The regime demands absolute loyalty and devotion, and sees religion as undermining this.”
There are a small number of government-controlled churches, which the regime uses to demonstrate to international visitors that it grants freedom of religion. Many Christian organizations have said that all North Korean churches are dubious because even the government-controlled churches are not able to function authentically.
According to Reuters, a North Korean propaganda video recently featured the renovation of a Protestant church. “Foreigners are invited to sit in front-row pews, they say, but are prohibited from mingling with a congregation hand-picked by the state. As at any church, a softly-spoken vicar may shake hands and chat with visitors as they leave, but officials carefully scrutinize the church after services and count Bibles to make sure none have gone missing, regular visitors say.”
Open Doors International’s 2014 World Watch List ranks North Korea first on its list of the top 50 countries where Christians are most severely persecuted for their faith. North Korea has held this position for 12 consecutive years. Communist oppression under the rule of Kim Jong-Un and his Workers` Party is a primary force behind persecution in North Korea. The family’s rule is absolute, and no one is allowed to challenge or question it. The dynasty has ruled North Korea for more than half a century.
“They have attempted to replace religion with a cultish dynastic ideology,” said Alton. “But by outlawing religious freedom, they have denied their society an engine for social and economic change.” North Korean police officials hunt down and vigorously persecute North Koreans who convert to Protestant Christianity while in China, or those who attempt to bring Christian literature, primarily Bibles, back with them to North Korea.
Thousands of other believers, who come from families with a long Christian heritage, risk their lives, too. Meeting together for fellowship can be extremely dangerous. “My father was allowed to receive visitors in our house,” North Korean refugee Hee Young, who wished to use a pseudonym, told Open Doors.
“Every Sunday, I would play outside with the other children, and my parents would have secret worship. One day I said ‘goodbye’ to my father, and left for school. When I returned that afternoon, he did not open the door. The house was a complete mess, my mother and grandmother were in tears, and my father’s office was empty. He was gone, and I never saw him again. We knew the police would come back. So we burned our Bibles. Eventually we were banished and forced to do hard labor in an isolated village.” Ten years later, Hee Young managed to escape to China, and eventually arrived in South Korea.
Source: World Watch Monitor
Father, today we consider our fellow Christians in North Korea and lift them up to Your care. You often use earthly means to accomplish Your purposes, and we pray that You will use the visit of Pope Francis to bring global attention to the injustices in North Korea and to bring about an end to tyranny. We pray for the thousands of Christians and other political prisoners; that You would sustain them and give them hope with Your clear presence in their midst. We pray for Your gospel reconciliation to go forth in great power, and we look to the day when North Korea, along with fellow Koreans to the South, will stand as a beacon of the light and hope of Christ. In the name of Jesus, who came to reconcile man to a holy and righteous God, Amen.