Blog #44: Jerusalem of the East

By John Cline
Last Sunday, our congregation held a seventh annual joint worship service with our Korean friends of Myung Sung Presbyterian Church. It was a joyous event, featuring a great message from Dr. Chi Hwan An, the pastor of Myung Sung Church, followed by a delicious luncheon which consisted of the main course supplied by our Korean friends, and McLaurinites bringing desserts. In light of that event, and because of the ongoing international tensions between the leaders of North Korea and the rest of the world, I offer you the following blog on the state of affairs of Christianity in Korea, focusing in on North Korea in particular.
For 16 years, North Korea has been ranked the “most oppressive place in the world for Christians,” by Open Doors, a Christian organization that monitors Christianity around the world. Last month, the U.S. State Department re-asserted that North Korea is as one of the world’s worst religious persecutors – torturing and executing those even suspected of worshipping God. Officially, only 1.7% of the population are Christian, but, unofficial reports state that the number of “secret” Christians in the underground church makes the actual number of Christians in that country much, much larger than what the communist government will admit to. By contrast, South Korea has the largest churches on earth, with eleven of the twelve largest churches in the world being in the city of Seoul alone. The largest church on earth, Yoido Full Gospel Church, has about 800,000 official members. My wife karen and I went there a few years ago, and, truly, the worship service was an incredibly moving spiritual experience as we joined in with the thousands of others in the auditorium in a multi-lingual praising of God.
In the 1800’s Christianity dominated Korea, especially in the north. In fact, before 1948 the city of Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, was an important Christian center, one-sixth of its population of about 300,000 people, at the very least, were Christian, and it was known worldwide as the “Jerusalem of the East”. The rapid growth of the church in South Korea, after the Korean War in the 1950’s, was perhaps triggered by the fact that Christians from the northern part of the Korean peninsula fled the godless Communists who had taken over the north, settling in the far south of the peninsula, particularly in Busan on the southernmost coast. Christianity in South Korea has flourished ever since and that country is now, per capita, the world’s largest supplier of Christian missionaries to the rest of the world.
But, what is life like for the remaining Christians in North Korea? Well, I have never been there but I read that last year, for the first time since the communists took power in the 1950’s Christmas was officially allowed to be celebrated but with the religious overtones downplayed. The truth is that, “life is extremely difficult for all North Koreans, but Christians face an even tougher road,” Jeff King, president of International Christian Concern told Fox News. “Christians are accused of being imperialists seeking to overthrow the government and those who are caught practicing their faith are arrested, horrendously tortured, imprisoned and [sometimes] immediately put to death.”
On the surface, Christianity does exist in North Korea. Its constitution on paper vows to protect religious freedom and forbids discrimination based on one’s faith. Thus, the capital, Pyongyang, is currently host to five state-controlled churches – the Protestant Bongsu, Chilgol and Jeil Churches, the Catholic Jangchung Cathedral and the most recent being the Orthodox Holy Trinity Russian Church. Yet all are deemed to be little more than fraudulent showpieces for visiting officials and tourists. Foreign visitors are routinely paraded around these sites, in which aptly dressed church officials clutch Bibles and bow at the altar. But Chad O’Carroll, managing director of the Seoul-based news and analysis firm Korea Risk Group, told Fox News that these are generally just hand-picked state workers whose vocation is to feign religion. The collection plates are passed through congregations and locals appear to donate as foreigners look on, but the plate ends up empty at the end. “Guides often complain about having to go to church and put on the show because some diplomatic figure is in town,” he continued. “There’s a mosque in Pyongyang to keep the Iranian officials happy, and the Russians have their church.”
But below the surface, there is an authentic Christian movement – with extreme risk. It is estimated that there up to 70,000 Christian prisoners in concentration camps in North Korea, and the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights conjectures that more than 75 percent of Christians who are dealt this fate do not survive. Defectors have spoken of Christians being crushed by steamrollers and used to test biological weapons, or hung on a cross over a fire.
One of the biggest obstacles Christians face is paranoia and snitching from even close confidantes, as the Kim Jong Un regime encourages tattling for rewards. “A famous saying in North Korean culture is: ‘The walls have eyes and the fields have ears.’ Christians must be extremely careful to hide their faith as much as possible, they must practice in the dark and be very wary of neighbors, friends and family members turning them in as all citizens must spy on each other,” King said. “Most parents refrain from introducing their children to the Christian faith until they are older in order to protect the family.”
Case in point: Vernon Brewer, founder and president of humanitarian organization World Help told Fox News that he often thinks about a case involving a girl named Eun, whose third-grade teacher gave the class a “special assignment” to go home and “look for a book” and if it’s the right book, the student will be honored. Eun ended up finding a Bible. “The next day she received a prize at her school. But when Eun returned home, her parents weren’t there,” he recalled. They had been seized and taken away for their faith.
Parents brave enough to share their faith with their children, or extended families, are known to gather in lightless back rooms of their homes where they can only whisper their prayers and hymns. Often their Bibles are scattered pages to disguise “the book.”
From the late 19th century until the Korean War, North Korea was a Christian stronghold. While it is now anything but friendly to the faithful, activists claim Christianity is still burgeoning in the deeply tyrannical country.In fact, Vernon Brewer claims, “Despite efforts to eradicate Christians, we have found the church is North Korea is actually growing. They know only God is powerful enough to break through the darkness of the most oppressive regime on earth.”
So, let us be in prayer for our brothers and sisters in the Lord who are in North Korea, and be thankful for those in South Korea who are free to practice their faith.
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