Seoul (AsiaNews) - The situation of the Korean Peninsula "is still fairly tense, but North Korean officials have welcomed the Eugene Bell Foundation delegation, which includes four Catholic priests, with true happiness," Fr Gerard Hammond told AsiaNews. "No one wants war. We have tried to be bridges of peace following in the footsteps of Pope Francis and South Korean bishops," added the Maryknoll missionary. In Korea for decades, he has recently returned from a humanitarian mission in the North.
The group, made up of 20 people, arrived in Pyongyang via Beijing on 18 April. After a long tour of the Phyongan Province, they returned on 4 May. "We were received very well. Our hosts expressed in words and deed their joy for our visit. We brought mostly material goods and drugs against tuberculosis, which is a true health emergency in North Korea. "
The country has about 22 million inhabitants, half of whom live below the poverty line. Tuberculosis, as Fr Hammond explained, "is spread through the air and affects those who suffer from malnutrition or are weak more generally. We are trying to do everything possible to stop the outbreak, and in this, our counterpart was very proactive. We asked to be allowed back into the country next October. Let us hope they will grant us permission."
The Eugene Bell Foundation has a long history of helping North Korea. Founded in 1995 by will of Stephen Linton, it includes a "delegation" that twice a year is allowed to visit some areas of North Korea and deliver medical drugs and equipment to eradicate tuberculosis.
Fr Hammond, a Maryknoll superior in Korea for 18 years who this year obtained South Korean citizenship, has made more than 30 humanitarian trips.
The delegation from the Foundation is officially recognised as NGOs by the government in Pyongyang. It has five or six permanent members, including two Catholic priests: Fr Hammond and a priest from the Paris-based Foreign Missions Society (MEP). Fr Hammond is considered the chaplain of the group.
On average, visits last 10 days to two weeks with delegation members staying in Pyongyang's Guest House, hosted by the government. However, they spend most of their time outside the capital.
In the Kobangsan Guest House, where the delegation was housed, "we celebrated Mass every day. In this particular situation, it is very important for us to promote Pope Francis's appeals for peace on the Korean Peninsula. As the bishops of South Korea have said several times, reconciliation between the two countries comes through dialogue and honesty. We do and shall continue to do everything that is needed to be the first to hold this conviction."