Seoul (AsiaNews) – Through a spokesman, a group of patients told a delegation from the Eugene Bell Foundation, which included some Catholic priests, that Catholic volunteers who work with TB patients in North Korea " brought life and hope.” Hence, “we want to thank them.”
Fr Gerard Hammond, Maryknoll regional superior in Korea, spoke to AsiaNews about the delegation’s latest spring mission to the Socialist nation. For him, “Being bearers of hope is the most beautiful thing”.
The 16-member delegation began its visit on 20 April until 6 May. It included 11 people involved in reception activities, and five dedicated to rebuilding health facilities damaged by winter.
At present, the Foundation runs “11 centres, but the government has given us the opportunity to build five more. Each can accommodate up to 20 TB patients,” Fr Hammond said.
In their last visit, the group saw a thousand successfully healed patients. "We set up the facilities, provided medical drugs and sometime helped the health care staff upgrade their training.”
“The government is aware of the risks associated with tuberculosis, and it is good to see them work with us in this area.” What is more, “Meeting healed patients during evening meetings was especially rewarding. For a Christian, bringing hope is something quite wonderful.”
Fr Hammond has worked with North Korea for about 20 years. Regional superior of the Maryknoll missionaries, he has made more than 50 trips to the country. Last year, he was given South Korean citizenship, a rare honour for a Westerner, precisely because of his humanitarian work and Catholic commitment.
Founded in 1995 by Stephen Linton, the Eugene Bell Foundation too has a long history of providing aid to the North. Twice a year (three most recently), it is authorised to send a delegation to some areas of North Korea, bringing medical drugs and equipment used in the fight to eradicate TB.
The country has about 22 million inhabitants, half of which live under the poverty line. “Spread through the air,” tuberculosis “affects especially those who suffer from malnutrition or general weakness,” Fr Hammond said.
“We are trying to do everything possible to stop the spread. Our counterpart [the North Korean government] is very proactive. We do not hide our identity, our application for visas is done with the best of intentions and the delegation that went on the last trip included several priests."