10/11/2018, 00.00
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Bishop You: Priests in Pyongyang and religious freedom to prepare the Pope's visit to North Korea

by Bernardo Cervellera

The bishop of Daejeon, currently in Rome for the Synod, foresees little time for preparations for a papal journey. North Korea wants the normalization of relations with other countries in the world. Ensuring the presence of priests (from the south) and greater religious freedom in the North would be concrete signs of the changes taking place in the country. The Vatican worries about peace in the world, but does not forget human rights.

Vatican City (AsiaNews) - The invitation of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to Pope Francis to visit the North has been  welcomed by all Koreans. But to prepare for this visit, which is "pastoral" and not "political", North Korea would need to accept the presence of priests in Pyongyang and to guarantee greater religious freedom for its people, says Msgr. Lazzaro You Heung-sik (photo 2). The bishop of Daejeon (South Korea) was responding to reports of an invitation that Kim Jong-un has addressed to the Pope. The official letter will be delivered to Francis by South Korean President Moon Jae-in, on a visit to the Vatican on 17-18 October.

For Msgr. You, who is currently in Rome to participate in the Youth Synod, as a member invited by the Pope, the preparation of the visit will take a long time. However, it is a step that is conducive to the normalization of international relations between North Korea and other countries. Regarding the persecution still present in the North, the bishop of Daejeon, who is president of the Episcopal Commission for Society, points out that in dialogue with North Korea, the Vatican works for relaxation and peace, without forgetting human rights.  Below an interview that Msgr. You gave to AsiaNews.

Msgr. You, what is the significance of this completely new invitation by Kim Jong-un to Pope Francis?

I think for Kim Jong-un, a visit by the Pope would benefit from the normalization of international relations with other countries. The news is very positive, but in my opinion there is still so much to be done and we need to understand how long it will take to allow such developments. Diplomacy is accomplished by small steps, first an official letter of invitation must be presented to the Pope, then the await the response. Furthermore, we must bear in mind that those of the pontiff are above all pastoral visits, not political. I do not think it is possible to organize such a visit in a short amount of time.

In the past, there had been attempts to establish relations between Pyongyang and the Vatican: the North Korean ambassador for Italy, who died some years ago, had a very good relationship with the Catholic Church and wanted to invite some of the Holy See. However, nothing has been done since his death.

When I learned of the interim agreement between the Holy See and the People's Republic of China, I thought: "This could have a positive influence on North Korea too, which depends a lot on Beijing". I would like to point out that in order to welcome the Holy Father to Pyongyang, North Korea first need to implement some conditions: for example accepting priests in the North and guaranteeing greater religious freedom for the North Korean people. These two initiatives, which are closely linked, would be the most concrete signs of the turning point in North Korea's position in front of all the countries of the world.

How was the news received by the South Korean people?

It made headlines in all South Korean media and was greatly welcomed by the Catholic community. The question is very delicate, because when there are so many expectations, if it fails then this hurts even more. We can hope, pray, but whether the Holy See accepts the invitation or not is another thing.

Coming to the Vatican on October 17th and 18th, President Moon will speak with the Pope and Card. Parolin and will be more concrete and specific. For now, we rely only on the few statements made by the president's spokesperson.

Are there no critical positions, of people who ask not to forget the persecution that has taken place and which continues in the North?

Last July, Msgr. Gallagher came to Korea at the invitation of the state. After the official meetings with the president and ministers, he met the Catholic deputies of all the parties. The deputies are 300 in all and the Catholics 76; at least 50 of these came to the meeting and this is already a miracle. The meeting between Archbishop Gallagher and the deputies lasted an hour and a half. Among the participants, there was one who was not happy with the rapprochement between the two Koreas. He exclaimed: "The Holy See is always very interested in human rights issues. But now we are talking only about peace ". Msgr. Gallagher replied: "Human rights are very important, but if there is war, this destroys everything. This is why peace takes first place in the concerns of the Holy See." In Korea, those who were critical about dialogue, but seeing the concrete steps that are taking place, they are beginning to change their minds. This is the current situation in Korea.

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