Seoul (AsiaNews) - A delegation of South Korean priests "will be sent on a regular basis to North Korea to celebrate the major Catholic festivities. Moreover, channels of dialogue have been opened to improve religious exchanges between the two sides of the border in the coming years", the spokesman for the South Korean Bishops' Conference announced this morning at a press conference after the return of a delegation of four bishops and 13 priests to Pyongyang.
The visit lasted four days and was on the back of an invitation of the North Korean Catholic Association. According to the Bishops Conference priests who visit the North will be able to celebrate Mass at the Changchung cathedral Pyongyang (see photo), the only Catholic church in the country. The meeting, the spokesman added, "laid the groundwork for increased cooperation and exchanges between the Catholics of Korea".
The North Korean Constitution guarantees religious freedom, but in fact it is non-existent in the country. The only cult admitted is that of national leaders (the "father of his country" Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il), and the faithful of all religions face harsh penalties - and even shooting - if caught displaying “religious" behavior.
There are three churches in the capital Pyongyang, two Protestant and one Catholic, but they are believed to be "smoke screens" for the few tourists who visit the country. There are no Catholic priests, Protestant pastors or Buddhist monks in North Korea.
The Catholic Association of North Korea claims to have 3 thousand subscribers, but AsiaNews sources estimate that there are less than 800 and these are mostly the very old people, baptized before the Korean War (which broke out in 1950) who have no way to practice their faith. In some special occasions like Christmas, it is possible that the faithful meet exchange a greeting of "peace", but nothing more than that.