NORTH KOREA: CHRISTIAN REFUGEES QUESTION REGIME’S CLAIMS


Defectors’ descriptions add to evidence of strong but severely persecuted church.

DUBLIN, April 24 (Compass Direct News) – Eom Myong-Heui of North Korea was a loyal communist in the Workers’ Party of Korea before she became a Christian under the influence of her business partner – a missionary who was later arrested and tortured into revealing that Eom was a believer.

Authorities placed Eom into a detention center in her hometown of Moosan and tortured her into denying her faith – but her incarceration continued under appalling conditions. Officials eventually released her due to her previous national loyalty. Now an assistant pastor at a church in Seoul, South Korea after a harrowing escape from her home country, Eom relates a journey that is part of a growing body of evidence of a strong – and severely persecuted – church in North Korea.

“A lot of people ask me if there really are people in North Korea who believe in Christ,” she said. “Do you really think that the missionaries who were there and all the believers who meet underground are all dead?”

Even as the North Korean government this month allowed two high-profile, U.S. Christian bands to perform at a music festival in Pyongyang, the fear of punishment authorities have instilled in North Korean Christians keeps most of them from publicly revealing their faith. As many as 400,000 Christians are estimated to worship secretly in the country, and Suzanne Scholte, head of an association of some 60 groups campaigning for change in the country called the North Korean Freedom Coalition (NKFC), estimates that more than 200,000 North Koreans are held in political prison camps for various perceived “disloyalties” to the regime, including adherence to Christianity.

Christian support group Open Doors estimates that of the 200,000 people incarcerated in political prison camps, at least 40,000 are Christians. Under North Korea’s policy of juche, or self-reliance, citizens may worship only President Kim Jong Il and his late father, former ruler Kim Il Sung.

Jung Eun Hye, one of several North Korean refugees expected to speak about conditions in the country at events in Washington, D.C. next week, said that freedom of religion is stipulated in North Korea’s constitution, but that “Christians have to risk their lives to have a secret service away from the oppression of the government.”

Jung, who faced severe persecution after authorities caught his father and aunt with Bibles in their possession, said he did not know that any churches existed in Pyongyang until he escaped from North Korea. While a handful of government churches do exist in the capital, Jung is one of many refugees who believe that these churches exist only to “deceive the outside world.”

“Here is my question,” said Jung. “If North Korea has freedom of religion, why does the government arrest, kill or imprison Christians in camps from which they never return?”

Testimony from various sources confirms that the government actively seeks out Christian groups and meeting points and imprisons Christians solely because of their faith. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) last year reported refugees saying that Christianity remained a key factor in the interrogation of people repatriated from China to North Korea. Border guards reserved the harshest punishment for those who admitted having any contact with Chinese or South Korean Christians.

“There is no freedom of belief or religion,” one refugee stated. “[We are taught] that if one is involved in religion, one cannot survive.”

Former police and security officers interviewed for USCIRF’s report admitted that their superiors had instructed them to play the role of Christians and infiltrate “underground” prayer meetings in order to incriminate, arrest, imprison and sometimes execute believers in North Korea.

 

‘Abyss of Death’

A delegation of North Korean refugees recently described their experiences ahead of events on Capitol Hill from Sunday (April 26) through Saturday (May 2) as part of North Korea Freedom Week.

Kim Young Soon, a refugee who spent nine years in a prison camp, said North Korean ruler Kim “is pushing the people into the abyss of death. In such a society, no one can trust anyone.”

Authorities sent Kim Young Soon and her family to prison camp No. 15, otherwise known as Yodok, after she made a seemingly innocent comment about the regime.

“Every mountain and field in Yodok was covered with dead bodies because of malnutrition and hunger,” Kim said. She described waking at 3:30 a.m. to run six kilometers (nearly four miles) to her assigned workplace and surviving on a diet of unripe, salted corn. Her parents and two of her sons died during their incarceration; border guards shot her third son when she fled with him to China shortly after their release.

Former prisoner Jung Gwangil said prison guards sadistically controlled inmates through collective punishment.

“If I did something wrong, all the members of the group I belonged to were punished,” he said. “When guards withheld food or switched off heaters in the middle of winter, fellow prisoners would sometimes beat the responsible inmate to death.”

Another former prisoner, Kim Tae Jin, described being left naked in a freezing cell and forced to sit on quicklime in the rain, resulting in severe burns to her skin.

“Even now, there are people who cut their own fingers off to avoid hard labor, who disguise themselves as madmen, or who lose their arms from beatings because they believe in a God who supposedly doesn’t exist,” she added.

While she was in prison, she said, a fellow inmate known only as Park formed a small “fellowship” of seven Christians. Prison guards eventually caught Park, beat him severely and asked him, “Who told you about the existence of God?”

“Do we have to be told about the existence of the sun to know that it’s there?” Park replied. “We learn its existence by feeling its warmth.”

 

Perilous Journey

In such conditions, the journey to faith is perilous for North Koreans – or nothing short of miraculous in the case of Eom, an assistant pastor at Seoul’s New Pyongyang Full Gospel Church (a fellowship for North Korean Defectors associated with Yoido Full Gospel Church).

She was extremely loyal to the regime until she made contact with a South Korean-Chinese Christian businessman.

“It’s very hard to live in North Korea, so if you don’t secretly do business, you can’t survive,” Eom said in sharing her story with members of another large church in Seoul, South Korea. “So for a few days I just kept being polite and agreeing with whatever he said about God, even though I knew he was wrong … but then God started to change my heart.”

Eventually the missionary gave her a small New Testament.

“I enjoyed it,” she said. “The teaching to love your enemy, give him food if he’s hungry, give him water if he’s thirsty. I also took to heart the words about loving each other.”

Eom asked a superior why North Korea didn’t have a religion other than worship of the Kim family.

“His eyes got big and he told me that religion was poison,” she said, “and that if I tried to learn about Christianity I would automatically become a traitor.”

As a teacher, Eom knew what happened to children of traitors and immediately began to worry about her two daughters. When police arrested the missionary and someone warned her that she could be next, Eom packed a small bag and assured her youngest daughter that she would return in three days.

“At the time,” she told the Seoul congregation, “I didn’t realize that this trip would bar me from ever entering the country again.”

Detained by police, she said, she could not understand why the authorities were so concerned about whether she was a Christian instead of asking about her business activities. After her release and unable to rescue her daughters, she escaped to China, where she was arrested twice and told, “If we arrest you again, we will kill you.”

From China Eom made a dangerous journey via Myanmar to Thailand, where she spent six months in a detention center before being granted asylum in South Korea in 2002.

“This is a most critical time for the North Korea human rights movement,” said Scholte, head of the NKFC and president of the Defense Forum Foundation. “We either advance these issues now with the opportunity that comes from a new administration and a new Congress, or we see another decade of death and despair for those whose great misfortune was to be born under the Kim Jong Il dictatorship.”  

Report from Compass Direct News

INDIA: HINDUS IN ORISSA MAYHEM HELP PROTECT CHRISTIANS


Another inflammatory funeral procession planned for Sunday, in spite of ban.

BHUBANESWAR, September 5 (Compass Direct News) – Asserting that most area Hindus are tolerant and peaceable, victims of ongoing anti-Christian violence in the eastern state of Orissa blamed the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) and other extremist groups for the terror of the past two weeks.

“The mobs that attacked our parishes and institutions were largely composed of extremists from the VHP and its youth wing, Bajrang Dal,” said Bishop Sarat Chandra Nayak of the Behrampore Catholic diocese.

At least four parishes, a presbytery and a youth hostel were destroyed in Munniguda town in Rayagada district under the Behrampore diocese in the spate of violence that began following the killing of a VHP leader, Laxmanananda Saraswati, and four of his associates in Kandhamal district on August 23. Christian leaders say more than 100 lives have been lost and thousands of houses, churches and institutions damaged or destroyed in the violence.

The state government attributed the assassination of the VHP leader and his associates to Maoists who have since claimed responsibility for the murders, but the Hindu extremist groups continue to blame Christians.

Asked if he condemned the violence on Christians, VHP Orissa State President Gauri Prasad Rath told Compass that he categorically did not.

“You should ask me to condemn the killing of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati and his associates with AK-47s by Christians,” he said.

While the Global Council of Indian Christians says more than 100 people have been killed in the violence, the Kandhamal District Collector’s Office told Compass that the death toll is only 14 people. The office reports 22,685 people are in relief camps in Kandhamal. The same office has also reported that 2,400 buildings have been destroyed in the mayhem, though Christian leaders believe the total is much higher.

 

Hindus Protected Christians

Father Mathew Puthyadam, a Catholic priest in Phulbani town in Kandhamal district, told Compass that local Hindu families gave him shelter.

As mob of around 4,000 people was carrying the body of Saraswati in a procession outside his church on the night of August 24, he said, he first sought shelter with Christians.

“When the mob was destroying my parish [Christ the King Church], I went to the house of parish workers nearby and hid in a broken bathroom,” Fr. Puthyadam said. “The mob somehow came to know that the house belonged to Christians, and they launched an attack on it. They beat up the two boys who live there, but they managed to escape. Thankfully, they did not come to the bathroom.”

About an hour after the mob left, Fr. Puthyadam came out to the street to see if it was safe for him to leave.

“A Hindu lady told me some extremists were still roaming around,” he said. “She asked me to hide in her kitchen and gave me food to eat.”

Later, Fr. Puthyadam fled to a forest, and finally came to the Archbishop’s House in the state capital, Bhubaneswar.

“Many among the mob were goons and thieves who were seemingly led by extremist groups,” he recalled, saying he felt he had gotten a “second life” as he could have been killed.

Another priest who managed to reach Bhubaneswar after a seven-day journey from Onjamundi village in Kandhamal district praised local Hindu families for protecting him.

“On the evening of August 25, a mob of 300 people who were armed with pistols, chisels and sticks, started burning houses and churches,” said Father Laxmikant Pradhan, a Catholic priest. “We could see thick smoke rising from all around. But Hindu families in the village asked Fr. Prabodha Kumar, my associate, and I to hide in their homes.”

Ravindranath Pradhan, a 45-year-old former soldier of the Indian Army, told Compass that VHP supporters attacked Christian houses in his village of Gadragaon in the Rupagaon area of Kandhamal.

“We know the attackers – they are from the VHP,” he said. “We have named them in our police complaint.”

Pradhan and 113 others reached Bhubaneswar on August 28 after walking for four days from Gadragaon. The homeless Christians were given shelter in a YMCA center in the capital city.

 

Creating a Rift

Some Orissa locals believe the extremists meant to create a rift between Christian missionaries and lower-caste tribal peoples known as “Other Backward Classes” (OBCs).

Prabhu Kalyan Mahapatra, a local Hindu and freelance journalist, told Compass that he did not think the violence was the result of what media are portraying as a Hindu-Christian “clash.”

In Kandhamal, there are OBCs who are lower castes but not “outcasts,” Mahapatra said, noting that the OBCs were mainly traders, while Dalits and tribal peoples were laborers and the poorest of the poor. He said the OBCs exploited Dalit and tribal people.

“However, Christian missionaries provided education to Dalits and tribals, which was not liked by the OBCs for obvious reasons,” he said, pointing out that several people from Dalit and tribal backgrounds had risen to become bureaucrats and members of parliament because of education provided by Christian institutions. “And the VHP took advantage of the situation and created a rift between OBCs and Christian missionaries.”

Mahapatra said that locals’ tolerance for Christian converts made Hindu-Christian conflict an unlikely reason for the violence. A Christian convert, Madhusudan Das, was recognized by the people of all local communities as the “father of modern Orissa,” he said.

Das, a lawyer, social reformer and patriot, worked for the political, social and economical uplift of people of eastern India, especially Orissa, and contributed numerous articles and poems both in Oriya and English.

“If the people of these communities respect a convert [Das], how can you say the Hindus of Orissa are not tolerant?” he asked.

Mahapatra explained how the VHP extended Saraswati’s funeral procession to incite violence.

“The funeral was taken from Saraswati’s ashram [religious center] in Jalespeta to his other ashram in Chakapada in Kandhamal, covering around 134 kilometers, when the distance between the two ashrams is merely 70 kilometers,” he said.

The attacks on Christians began during the funeral procession, he added.

 

New Tensions Feared

The Orissa government yesterday put a ban on rally planned by the VHP to take the ashes of Saraswati in another public procession throughout Orissa villages beginning on Sunday (September 7), according to the Press Trust of India news agency.

The ban was announced by the state government in hearing of a petition filed by Archbishop Raphael Cheenath from Orissa in the Supreme Court of India. The state government, however, fears fresh trouble on Sunday, as it is believed that the VHP may still go ahead with the processions.

“The state government has decided to rush additional force to the riot-affected areas in view of VHP’s proposed ‘kalas puja’ [worship of the remains of a deceased] of slain Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati,” reported The Indian Express newspaper today.

According to the Evangelical Fellowship of India, mobs led by extremist groups are “roaming in Kandhamal and threatening the Christians to ‘reconvert’ or face death.”

Christians from various denominations will fast and pray for the Christians in Orissa on Sunday.

The VHP and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, a partner of the ruling government led by the Biju Janata Dal party, continue to blame Christians for the killing of Saraswati and four others in spite of the Maoist claim of responsibility for the assassination.

Saraswati allegedly incited the attacks on Christians and their property in Kandhamal during last Christmas season. The violence lasted for more than a week beginning December 24, and killed at least four Christians and burned 730 houses and 95 churches.

The 2007 attacks were allegedly carried out mainly by VHP extremists under the pretext of avenging an alleged attack on Saraswati by local Christians. Hundreds of Christians were displaced by the violence in Kandhamal, and many are still in various relief camps set up by the state government.

Christians make up 2.4 percent of Orissa’s population, or 897,861 of the total 3.7 million people.

Report from Compass Direct News