Seoul (AsiaNews) - The bishops of South Korea have asked the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to open the beatification process for the bishop of Pyongyang Msgr. Francis Borgia Hong Yong-ho and his 80 companions, martyrs of the persecution carried out by the Stalinist regime of Kim Il-sung immediately after the division of the Korean peninsula in 1948. This is an important step towards the recognition of the suffering of the Catholic community in the north, decimated by the ideological hatred of the Kim regime.
Ordained May 25, 1933, he was appointed vicar apostolic of Pyongyang and titular bishop of Auzia March 24, 1944 by Pope Pius XII. The following June 29, he was consecrated by Archbishop Bonifatius Sauer, co-consecrating Bishop Hayasaka Irenæus, Archbishop Paul Marie Kinama-ro.
On March 10, 1962 Pope John XXIII decided to elevate the vicariate of Pyongyang to diocese, also in protest against the policies of the North Korean regime, and appointed as its first bishop, Mgr. Hong, who has becomes a symbol of persecution against Catholics in North Korea and in general in the communist regimes.
Although, if he were alive he would be well over one hundred, in the Vatican they say it "cannot be excluded that he may still be a prisoner in some re-education camp". The Pontifical Yearbook still lists Mgr Francis Hong Yong-ho as bishop of Pyongyang. Although he disappeared on March 10, 1962, he has never been officially declared dead.
At present, the Catholic Church in North Korea is in appalling conditions. Since the end of the civil war in 1953, the three local ecclesiastical jurisdictions and the whole Catholic community have been brutally wiped out by the Stalinist regime. Not a single local priest has been left alive and all foreign clergymen have been expelled. In the early years of persecution by Kim Il-sung, North Korea's first dictator, an estimated 300,000 Catholics have vanished.
Despite this, the Pope has kept alive the clergy assigning sedi vacanti et ad nutum Sanctae Sedis to some South Korean ordinaries. At present, in addition to Cardinal Cheong, who administers the diocese of Pyongyang, there are Mgr John Chan Yik, bishop of Chuncheon and administrator of Hamhung, and Fr Simon Peter Ri Hyeong-u, abbot of the Benedictine Monastery of Waegwan and administrator of Tokwon.
The result is that today there are no Church institutions nor resident priests in North Korea. Still there are some Christians. However, following the inauguration of the first Orthodox church last August in the North Korean capital, the remaining Catholics are the only community without a minister to celebrate their faith.
According to credible sources, actual Catholics number 800, far fewer than the 3,000 recently acknowledged by the government. The so-called North Korean Catholic Association, an organisation created and run by the regime, claims to represent local Catholics. The Holy See has always discouraged visits by its leaders to Rome since there are still serious doubts about their legal and canonical status. There are strong suggestions that they are Communist Party officials, not Catholics.
In North Korea only the personality cult of leader Kim Jong-Il and his late father Kim Il-Sung is allowed.The regime has always tried to prevent any religious activity, especially by Buddhists and Christians. It has forced believers to register with organisations controlled by the party.
The authorities in Pyongyang have claimed that the constitution guarantees religious freedom. According to official figures, there are an estimated 10,000 Buddhists, 10,000 Protestants and 3,000 Catholics registered with officially sanctioned religious organisations. In Pyongyang itself, there are three churches: two Protestant and one Catholic.
According to 2004 Report on Religious Freedom by Aid To The Church In Need, religious worship in such churches is less than traditional. The 'Dear Leader' is worshipped like a semi-god. In the capital's one Catholic church, religious practice involves a once-a-week collective prayer but with no priest.
In reality, these places of worship are nothing but show pieces for the odd tourist who manages to visit the country.
The Christian community is subjected to harsh repression by the authorities. A Christian is doubly unpopular: accused of disloyalty to the regime and suspected of ties with the West. The majority of the faithful have been forced to express their faith in secret. In a communist country, being "discovered" while attending a mass in an unauthorized location may result in imprisonment and, at worst, torture and even capital punishment. Even the mere fact of possessing a Bible is a crime that can carry the death penalty. On 16 June 2009, a 33 year old Christian, Ri Hyon-ok, was sentenced to death and executed "for putting Bibles into circulation."