In North Korea, a church renovated, missionaries jailed

Tue Aug 12, 2014 5:14pm EDT
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By James Pearson

SEOUL (Reuters) - Tucked between trees and paddy fields in a quiet suburb in the west of Pyongyang, Chilgol Church is one of four state-operated churches in the capital of a country that espouses freedom of religion but effectively bans it.

In recent months, the Protestant church has been renovated - its rusted iron roof replaced with new tiles, and its faded brown brick walls repainted yellow, according to a North Korean propaganda video. At the same time, North Korea has sentenced two foreign missionaries to hard labor and along the border with China, both countries have cracked down on religious groups.

As Pope Francis visits South Korea this week in his first trip to Asia, religion in North Korea is under the spotlight.

People who regularly travel to the North Korean capital describe its churches as showpieces for foreign residents and tourists. Many foreigners are invited to sit in front-row pews, they say, but are prohibited from mingling with a congregation hand-picked by the state.

North Korea's constitution guarantees freedom of religion provided it does not undermine the state, but outside of a small handful of state-controlled places of worship, no open religious activity is allowed.

"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," said Benedict Rogers of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which campaigns for religious freedom.

"The regime demands absolute loyalty and devotion and sees religion as undermining this," he said.

North Korea turned down an invitation from the South Korean Catholic church for members of its state-run Korean Catholic Association to attend a papal mass next week in Seoul, citing the start of joint U.S.-South Korean military drills, due to begin on the same day.   Continued...

North Koreans read mass at a Catholic church in Pyongyang in this August 17, 2003 file photo.    REUTERS/Lee Jae-won/Files