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Catholic Church

Pope's visit to Korea raises questions about plight of Christians

Donald Kirk says religious persecution is going on today in North Korea

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 August, 2014, 12:11pm
UPDATED : Friday, 15 August, 2014, 2:46am

The visit of Pope Francis to South Korea coincides with the 69th anniversary today of the Japanese surrender at the end of the second world war.

The eyes of the world will be on the pontiff as he celebrates mass in Daejeon World Cup Stadium on Asian Youth Day while South Korea's President Park Geun-hye makes the usual plea for peace and reconciliation of the two Koreas, so many years after the arbitrary division of the peninsula at the 38th parallel by the big powers that won the war, the US and the Soviet Union.

The pope undoubtedly will receive a far better response in South Korea than would ever be possible in China, where the church has been under government control ever since the victorious Communist regime broke off relations with the Vatican in 1951.

The pontiff would doubtless like to expand the role of Catholicism in China, even restore ties with the Vatican, but so far China's leaders appear supremely uninterested in the idea.

In fact, authorities have cracked down on Christians, both Catholics and Protestants, in churches near the border with North Korea in a renewed effort to stop them from aiding and harbouring refugees from North Korea.

In South Korea, the pope will probably call for peace and reconciliation in measured tones, appealing to the country's Catholics, estimated at well over five million, or more than 10 per cent of the population. His message will no doubt be crafted to bridge the gap between conservatives opposed to compromise and liberals highly critical of the government's hardline stance.

But will he dare to criticise North Korea for its own transgressions, for rhetorical threats to bomb the White House and destroy the regime in the south?

It's safe to assume the pope's plea will avoid anything the North Koreans might see as an insult or an affront, though the North has refused to send a delegation from its own Catholic church, that is, the showpiece congregation that foreign visitors see. Real North Korean Christians are jailed, tortured and executed when caught with religious material in their secret hideaways.

The real test for Francis, though, comes on Saturday when he beatifies another 124 Korean martyrs of the Catholic Church in a ceremonial mass to be attended by tens of thousands in Gwanghwamun in central Seoul.

While Francis honours the brave souls who died for the church, will he allude, subtly, abstractly, to the horrors of religious persecution going on today in North Korea? Will there be a hint that Christians in the North risk fates fully as horrible as those early Christians whom the pope is beatifying?

Will the pope or the 150 bishops in his entourage, including 50 from South Korea, remind their audiences that Pyongyang before the rise of Kim Il-sung was known as the "Jerusalem of the east"? Will any of them want to note that the North Korean capital was once a "city of churches"?

When Francis celebrates mass at Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul before leaving on Monday, many will remember the cathedral's place as a centre of protest against dictatorship in South Korea. He may mention human rights in general terms, but he's not likely to say a word about the ongoing horrors of religious persecution in the North.

Implicitly, however, the pope's visit raises questions about the plight of Christians in North Korea on the anniversary of the defeat of the Japanese, whose rule was never quite so harsh as that in Pyongyang today. It will be up to later popes, perhaps a century hence, to beatify those Catholics who have died, are still dying, as martyrs in the North.

Journalist and author Donald Kirk has been covering the issue of human rights on the Korean peninsula since the 1970s. kirkdon@yahoo.com