Seoul (AsiaNews) – In the messages read in Our Lady of Lourdes (Myondong) Cathedral last Monday celebrating the 80 years of the diocese of Pyongyang, the faithful were urged to pray for North Korea, that the blood of its martyrs may work as seeds for the freedom of the Church and the entire population and help keep open every possible channel of dialogue in order that freedom and justice may once more find their place in the country.
“Let us always remember the value of prayer, especially when we think about our North Korean brothers,” said in his homily Card Nicholas Cheong Jin-suk, archbishop of Seoul and Apostolic Administrator of Pyongyang. “We know how their faith has been forced into silence. It is in particular for this reason that we must raise our most ardent prayers to our Saviour,” he added.
“We can tell that the diocese of Pyongyang still remains in silence by the fact that under its name the Pontifical Yearbook has a blank line,” said Cardinal Cheong’s predecessor, Stephen Cardinal Kim Sou-hwan, Archbishop Emeritus of Seoul. However, “we can keep hoping in the midst of a situation where there is no hope, because we believe that Jesus Christ is always with the persecuted,” he noted.
Mgr Emil Paul Tscherrig, Apostolic Nuncio to Korea, urged Catholics “to remember their North Korean brothers and sisters in prayer, and show them Christian solidarity through acts of charity.”
An important witness came from Fr Victorinus Youn Kong-hi, who fled his native town of Jinnampo, in Pyongyang province, when it came under the Stalinist regime.
“I am sure that there is enough material for the evangelisation of North Korea thanks to sacrifices of North Korean martyrs. As Tertullian once said, ‘the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians’.”
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.
As evidence of the persecution by the North Korean regime, 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 (if he were alive, he would be 101-years-old).
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.