Seoul (AsiaNews) - North Korea has refused the invitation of the Archdiocese of
Seoul and will not send any "Catholics" to participate in the Mass
that the Pope will celebrate in Myeongdong Cathedral on 18 August. This rejection
of the invitation was contained in a letter sent by the Association of North
Korean Catholics, a puppet body created by Kim Il-sung. It accuses the South of "not having cancelled
the upcoming joint exercises with the United States, a gesture that makes any
visit impossible". According to an official of the South Korean Bishops'
Conference "this letter means that the North finds it difficult to accept
the invitation and handle the matter."
The invitation was first extended by the Archdiocese of Seoul to Pyongyang on 26 May, and then repeatedly made in following days. The hope was also to involve a delegation from the North at the great mass for reconciliation and peace that Francis will celebrate on the last day of his apostolic visit to the peninsula. According to the letter "under these circumstances, coming to Seoul would be an agonizing step".
The North Korean constitution guarantees religious freedom, but in reality it is non-existent in the country. The only cult allowed is worship of the national leaders (the "father of the nation" Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il), and the faithful of all religions are threatened with the harshest penalties - including death by firing squad - if caught being "religious". There are three churches in the capital Pyongyang, two Protestant and one Catholic, but are "smoke screens" to appease the few tourists who visit the country. In North Korea, there are no priests or Buddhist monks.
The Association claims to have 3 thousand "Catholics" among its members, but AsiaNews sources estimate that there are less than 800: these are mostly very old people, baptized before the Korean War (which started in 1950) who have no way of practicing their faith. On some special occasions like Christmas, it is possible that the surviving faithful meet to exchange a greeting of "peace", but nothing more than that.
Today's rejection however is not the last word on the issue: Pyongyang is in dire need of humanitarian aid from the South, and only Christians and Buddhists have the permission of the Seoul government to prepare and send these humanitarian loads. In addition, as a source that works in this field tells AsiaNews, "the North always waits until the very last moment to make its final decision. And the fact that it was the Association and not the government to respond leaves some room for hope that a North Korean delegation may be present for the Mass on the 18th".