AS THE echoes of the song Our Hopes Are For Reunification died away, the group of about 20 mostly elderly men stopped holding hands in a circle and gingerly embraced each other. It was a strange end to a remarkable event. Barred from worshipping together on Korean soil, Christians from North Korea and South Korea ended up meeting in a function room in the New World Emperor Hotel in Macau - a venue normally reserved for corporate cocktails or dull sales meetings. 'We are very happy,' said a grinning Reverend Kim Dong Wan, general secretary of the South Korean group, the National Council of Churches in Korea. But Christianity in North Korea - like almost all aspects of life in the world's last Stalinist state - remains a mystery. 'It's a closed society,' said Joseph Kaung Tai-wai, lecturer at the Department of Religion at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. 'So very few people have visited or even made contact with the churches.' In a rare, possibly unique interview, the head of the Protestant organisation (it does not appear to use the word 'church') in North Korea gave an account of the day-to-day life of Christians in his country. According to the Reverend Pastor Kang Yong Sop, chairman of the Central Committee of the Korean Christians Federation, there are about 10,000 Protestants in North Korea out of a population of 22 million. Worshippers are allowed to have bibles - which are printed in North Korea - and hymn books, he claimed. 'I know there is concern that Christians in North Korea are not able to exercise our freedom of religion,' he said, speaking through an interpreter. 'But we are pretty free to exercise our faith.' Members are 'mostly older people', he said. There was little interest from young people and their ability to go into the community to convert new members was restricted. 'We cannot do very much collective [outreach] activities. 'Most of our outreach is on a one to one basis. I believe that is the most effective.' The area that is now North Korea had 120,000 Christians in 1945, according to the Reverend Kang. 'But during the Korean War of 1950 to 1953, because of the devastation of the war, all the church buildings were demolished and there was a great migration of people. 'We lost a lot of Christians during that period.' Worshipping now takes place in about 500 'house churches', typically with eight or 10 'members'. These are just a room in a house, not a church building, he said. However, two new Protestant churches have recently been built in Pyongyang. The Reverend Kim is a full-time chairman of the committee, which he describes as 'non-denominational' Protestant. He claimed there were about 30 full-time priests performing solely religious work, but did not specify where they live or how they operate. South Korean government officials have in the past denounced the Korean Christians Federation as a government front trying to turn South Korean Christians against their capitalist government. But the Reverend Kim's claims of legitimacy do have an element of independent verification. Victor Hsu, director of the East Asia and Pacific offices of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States and co-convener of the Macau meeting, has worshipped at one North Korean church and reported 'they need more churches, they are packed'. Like many religious visitors, including American evangelist Billy Graham and the Reverend Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church, Mr Hsu had an audience with the North Korean leader Kim Il-sung. Pat Hamilton, co-ordinator of the Korean Ecumenical Education Programme, a London-based group linking churches in Britain with those in Korea, said she was convinced the Korean Christians Federation was a 'genuine religious group'. While the group has been known since about 1946, the Catholic church in North Korea has had a much lower profile. Two delegates from the 'Korean Roman Catholics Association' first appeared at a Vatican Mass in 1988. Reverend Kim said they had 3,000 to 4,000 members, although it appeared they only had lay priests. A Catholic church has recently been built in Pyongyang. The official tolerance of religion is underlined by a change to the North Korean constitution in 1993. Previously it stated: 'All people have freedom of religion. 'At the same time, all people have the freedom to oppose religion.' This last sentence was removed in the constitution that was promulgated in March 1993. Also, the 1981 edition of the official Korean Dictionary defined a missionary as an 'agent of aggression in the guise of religion sent by imperialists such as the United States under the pretext of propagating and promoting Christianity'. This was changed in 1992 to 'a person sent abroad on a mission to promote and propagate Christianity'. The strange aspect to the events in Macau was that the Marxist government in Pyongyang appears to be finding it increasingly useful to talk to the world via Christian groups. The forum, held over four days last week, was organised by the National Council of the Churches of Christ of the United States and the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church. It was attended by five North Koreans, 18 from the South, and about 25 people from Hong Kong, the United States, Japan and Europe. Although entitled 'An Ecumenical Consultation on Solidarity for Peace in North East Asia', in practice it was a platform for the North Koreans to make an appeal for aid to ease the effects of last year's flooding. A plea was also made for reunification and for a peace treaty between the North and South, which are still theoretically at war. The meeting was held in Macau because it is relatively cheap and North Koreans can stay for 20 days without a visa. The five North Korean delegates turned up with a video showing scenes of flood damage which was shown to other participants on Thursday morning and which, remarkably, Hong Kong TV stations were allowed to copy on the spot. The black-and-white video appeared to portray great devastation, but mysteriously few people or soldiers appeared in front of the lens. A speech given by a member of the North Korean delegation was made freely available to reporters. Although it contained occasional propagandist touches as how 'under the personal command of General Kim Jong-il, Supreme Commander of the Korean's People's Army', the armed forces made 'heroic efforts' to rescue people from flooded areas, in most parts it was a unique and highly detailed damage assessment. 'About 5.2 million people (2,600 Christians out of them) living in 145 cities and counties out of eight provinces suffered damage,' it stated. Total damage was put at US$15 billion (about HK$116 billion), while total aid from 'friends of different countries in the world' actually received as of January 10 was US$5.67 million. It also admitted that in the next year 3.2 million tonnes of grain will be needed, and contained Xinhua-esque statistics of mysterious accuracy on the damage, right down to the 85 hospitals, 1,351 day care centres and 4,120 kindergartens damaged or destroyed. Erich Weingartner, a Canadian who was co-ordinator of the meeting, said: 'We do not get the impression that there is an area where there is starvation in the streets. 'But the entire population of North Korea is living at a very low level of subsistence.' Religious bodies, including Caritas Hong Kong, have sent large amounts of aid to North Korea, and the conference communique included a pledge by participants to send more. Asked if he thought the Pyongyang government was using the Christians as a way of getting embarrassing information into the outside world, Victor Hsu chose his words carefully. He said: 'In a socialist society, nothing can take place without the proper approval of the state.' If Pyongyang is seeking alternative channels of communication, they have few to choose from. North Koreans are not accepted at many international gatherings and clergy are among the very few South Koreans who can get permission to visit the North. The Reverend Kim himself is one of the tiny number of North Koreans who have visited the United States. Chinese University's Joseph Kaung Tai-wai said North Korea's apparent tolerance of religion could be due to historical factors. In Asia the church 'usually, aligned with the coloniser, rather than the colonised', he said. However, in the Korean peninsula the colonisers were the Japanese and the church opposed their regime. The Reverend Kim had a more militaristic explanation: 'The late distinguished president Kim Il-sung had a lot of concern from Christians before the Liberation [from the Japanese]. 'Kim Il-sung worked very closely with many Christians for the liberation of the Korean peninsula'. However, the 'concern' does not extend to joint worship. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of the War of Japan, Christians on both sides of the border came up with an ingenious plan to hold a joint service straddling the 39th parallel on August 15 last year. Victor Hsu of the National Council of Churches of Christ said: 'It couldn't happen because of the political issues.'