02/16/2005, 00.00
NORTH KOREA
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'Dear Leader' worship as the one religion

Pyongyang (AsiaNews) – Religious worship is allowed in North Korea as long as it is the personality cult of Kim Jong-Il and his father, the late Kim Il-Sung.

Followers of traditional religions have obstacles to surmount, especially Buddhists and Christians, such as joining Communist Party-controlled organisations.

Those who do not join are persecuted, often brutally and violently. Anyone engaged in any kind of missionary activity is the recipient of a similar treatment.

Since the end of the Korean War in 1953 about 300,000 Christians have disappeared; any priest or nun who alive then has disappeared, most likely persecuted to death.

About 100,000 are surviving in labour camps with hunger and torture as their main companions and, for some, with death just around the corner. This is corroborated by former North Korean officials and ex prisoners who have said that Christians in the camps are singled out for especially harsh treatment.

In North Korea the population is divided in 51 state-sanctioned social and occupational groups. Positions at the bottom of this hierarchy are reserved for unregistered practicing believers. For them, educational and job opportunities are few and far in between; so are food vouchers. However, they do receive plenty of cruel and hurtful care.

One would not know this from what the North Korean government says. Adamant to prove that religious freedom exists in the country, North Korean authorities are quick to point out that religious freedom is guaranteed in the country's constitution.

According to official figures, there are an estimated 10,000 Buddhists, 10,000 Protestants and 4,000 Catholics registered with officially sanctioned religious organisations.  In Pyongyang itself there are three churches: two Protestant and one Catholic.

However, according to Aid To The Church In Need' 2004 Report on religious freedom, worship in such churches is less than traditional. 'Dear Leader' worship seems to be the main staple in the Protestant churches and in the capital's one Catholic church religious practice involves a once-a-week collective prayer but with no priest.

These days emigration is very popular among the hungry and those seeking greater religious freedom. They are however taking their chances since the death penalty and forced labour camps await them if they are ever caught.

And their chances have recently gotten worse when China and North Korea signed an agreement that requires Pyongyang's northern neighbour to repatriate North Korean 'illegal immigrants' found on its territory.

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