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
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,
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 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."