02/13/2004, 00.00
north korea - china
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North Korean refugees convert to Christianity

Pyongyang (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Christian groups, the underground Chinese Church and foreign missionaries are risking their lives to offer support and assistance to North Korean refugees who have fled to China to escape hunger and hardship. Such heroic testimony often sparks the conversion of refugees to Christianity, despite making their already difficult situation more dangerous.

It is estimated that around 400,000 North Koreans have fled to China in recent years, crossing over the country's northeast border in search of food and work.  Yet, since the Chinese government decided to help Pyongyang repatriate refugees, the latter have been forced to lead a clandestine existence while waiting to find another place to live.     

For Chinese refugees, repatriation means prison, torture, grueling interrogations, deportation and forced labor. Prison terms are so tough in North Korea –due to mistreatment and lack of food –that a large number of prisoners end up not surviving their sentences. For North Korean refugee converts, the risks are even greater after their encounters with the Christian missionaries and volunteers who helped them.  If tracked down and sent back to their homeland, their punishment would be even more brutal, possibly resulting in death.    

In order to help refugees, Christian organizations and missionaries give financial assistance to those in need of money. Often they put them in contact with diplomatic offices in China, so that they have the chance to flee abroad –frequently to South Korea. Most families of Chinese and Korean Christians living in China adopt North Korean children, who regularly convert to Christianity.  

Over the last few years Beijing and Pyongyang have enacted repressive measures to hunt down refuges and those who help them. Searches of homes have increased and rewards are given to citizens giving information on North Korean refugees.   

After 2002 many North Koreans found shelter in embassies and consulates in Beijing. North Korea increased Chinese border checks and raised the reward amount for those supplying information on missionaries and proselytizers.

The only form of worship permitted in North Korea is that of national leader Kim Jong-Il and his father, Kim Il-Sung. The government has always placed difficulties in the way of religious activity, particularly in the case of Buddhism and Christianity, and forced all religious organizations to be registered and monitored by the government.    

The North Korean regime carries out violent and brutal persecutions of Christians and all those dedicated to missionary activities. Since the communist government came to power in 1953, 300,000 Christians have gone missing. Currently 100,000 are living in labor camps, where they are subject to conditions of hunger, torture and death.

Three Christian churches, 2 Protestant and 1 Catholic, have been built in Pyongyang. Yet there are no priests to serve them.  (MR)

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