‘Pinpricks’ of Truth Making Way into North Korea

Citizens increasingly enlightened about world’s worst violator of religious freedom.

DUBLIN, April 26 (CDN) — As refugees from North Korea and activists from Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) gather in Seoul, South Korea this week to highlight human rights violations in the hermit kingdom, there are signs that North Korean citizens are accessing more truth than was previously thought.

A recent survey by the Peterson Institute found that a startling 60 percent of North Koreans now have access to information outside of government propaganda.

“North Koreans are increasingly finding out that their misery is a direct result of the Kim Jong-Il regime, not South Korea and America as we were brainwashed from birth to believe,” Kim Seung Min of Free North Korea Radio said in a press statement. The radio station is a partner in the North Korea Freedom Coalition (NKFC), which is holding its annual North Korea Freedom Week (NKFW) in Seoul rather than Washington, D.C. for the first time in the seven-year history of the event.

“We set out to double the radio listenership of 8 or 9 percent, and we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of people who have access to information,” said NKFC Co-Chair Suzanne Scholte. She described the flow of information as “pinpricks in a dark veil over North Korea. Now those pinpricks are becoming huge holes.”

The radio station now air-drops radios into North Korea and broadcasts into the country for five hours a day, adding to information gleaned by refugees and merchants who cross the border regularly to buy Chinese goods.

In recent years the government has been forced to allow a limited market economy, but trade has brought with it illegal technology such as VCR machines, televisions, radios and cell phones that can detect signals from across the border. Previously all televisions and radios available in North Korea could only receive official frequencies. 

“The government hasn’t been able to stamp out the markets, so they begrudgingly allow them to continue,” Scholte confirmed. “This means North Koreans aren’t relying solely on the regime anymore.”

Holding the annual event in Seoul this year sends a significant message, Scholte told Compass.

“This is a spiritual conflict as well as a physical one – some people didn’t want us to call it freedom week,” she said. “But we’re making a statement … God gives us freedom by the very nature of being human and North Koreans are entitled to that too.”

All people say they would never allow the World War II holocaust to be repeated, Scholte said, “but this is a holocaust, a genocide. I firmly believe we will be judged if we fail to intervene.”

The coalition hopes this week’s event will empower the 17,000 strong North Korean defectors in South Korea, awaken the consciousness of the world about human rights conditions in North Korea, and inform all who are suffering in North Korea that others will “work together until the day their freedom, human rights and dignity are realized,” Scholte said in the press statement.

As part of the week’s activities, the coalition will send leaflets into North Korea via balloon stating in part, “In the same year the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was passed, Kim Il-Sung was ensuring that you wouldn’t have any of those rights.”

Religious freedom in particular is almost non-existent. The only accepted belief is Juche – an ideology that strictly enforces worship of the country’s leaders.

“The regime is a perversion of Christianity,” Scholte told Compass. Juche has a holy trinity just as Christianity does, with Father Kim Il-Sung, son Kim Jong-Il, and the spirit of Juche said to give strength to the people.

“Kim Il-Sung is God; a real God can’t replace him,” a former North Korean security agent confirmed in David Hawke’s 2005 report, “A Prison Without Bars.”

While four churches exist in the capital, Pyongyang, experts believe these are largely showpieces for foreign visitors.

The government has allowed token visits from high-profile foreign Christians such as Franklin Graham, president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, who preached at Bongsu Protestant church in Pyongyang in August 2008; and two U.S. Christian bands, Casting Crowns and Annie Moses, attended and won awards at the Spring Friendship Arts Festival in April 2009.

Worship outside limited official venues is simply not tolerated, giving North Korea first place on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2010 World Watch List for persecution of Christians.

Ordinary citizens caught with a Bible or in a clandestine prayer meeting are immediately labeled members of the hostile class and either executed or placed in prison labor camps, along with three generations of their immediate family. Every North Korean belongs to either the “hostile,” “wavering” or “core” class, affecting privileges from food and housing to education and physical freedom, according to Hawke’s report.

There are no churches outside the capital, but the regime in 2001 estimated there were 12,000 Protestants and 800 Catholics in North Korea. In July 2002 the government also reported the existence of 500 vaguely-defined “family worship centers” catering to a population of approximately 22.7 million, according to a September 2009 International Religious Freedom report issued by the U.S. State Department.

By contrast, South Korea’s Dong-A Ilbo newspaper in July 2009 put the estimate at 30,000 Christians, some NGOs and academics estimate there may be up to several hundred thousand underground Christians.

Uncertain Future

As North Korea celebrated the birthday of Kim Jong-Il on Feb. 16, rumors spread that the elderly leader, currently battling heart problems, had chosen third son Kim Jong-Eun as his successor.

Documents extolling the virtues of Kim Jong-Eun began circulating as early as November, according to the Daily NK online news agency. An official “education” campaign for elite officials began in January and was extended to lesser officials in March. One document obtained by the agency described the “Youth Captain” as being “the embodiment of Kim Il-Sung’s appearance and ideology.”

“Kim picked this son because he’s ruthless and evil,” Scholte said, “but I don’t think they’re quite ready to hand over to him yet. There is an uncertainty, a vulnerability.”

Scholte believes this is the ideal time to “reach out, get information in there and push every possible way.”

“There are many double-thinkers among the elite,” she explained. “They know the regime is wrong, but they have the Mercedes, the education for their kids and so on, so they have no incentive to leave.”

The coalition is trying to persuade South Korea to establish a criminal tribunal, she said.

“North Koreans are actually citizens of South Korea by law,” she said. “We have to let these guys know there’s going to be a reckoning, to create a good reason for them not to cooperate [with authorities].”

Those in other countries have an obligation too, Scholte concluded. “When people walk out of the camps, it will haunt us. They’ll want to know, ‘What were you doing?’ We will be held accountable.”

Article 26 of North Korea’s constitution declares that the people have freedom of religion. The organizers of this year’s freedom week fervently hope that this declaration will soon become a reality.


The Cross at the Border: China’s Complicity in Refugees’ Suffering

Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) estimate anywhere from 30,000 to 250,000 refugees from North Korea are living in China, either in border areas or deeper inland. Few are Christians when they emerge from North Korea, but the whispered advice among refugees is to “head for a cross,” signaling a Chinese church that may assist them, according to a February 2009 National Geographic report.

Since China will not allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees access to border areas, Chinese Christians work with Christian NGOs to provide an “underground railroad” moving refugees via several routes to safety, most often in South Korea.

Chun Ki-Won, director of Christian NGO Durihana, admits that some of the refugees adopt Christianity to win favor with their rescuers, but others retain and strengthen their faith on arrival in South Korea.

China insists that the refugees are economic migrants and pays police a bounty to arrest and return them to North Korea. On arrival, North Korean officials pointedly question the refugees about contact with Chinese Christians or Christian NGOs. If any contact is admitted, execution or imprisonment is likely, according to David Hawke’s 2005 report, “A Prison Without Bars.”

As one refugee told Hawke, “Having faith in God is an act of espionage.”

Still others choose to return to North Korea with Bibles and other Christian resources at great risk to themselves. For example, officials in June 2009 publicly executed Ri Hyon-Ok, caught distributing Bibles in Ryongchon, a city near the Chinese border, South Korean activists reported.

China remains impervious to the refugees’ plight.

“China fears being flooded by refugees if they show compassion,” said Suzanne Scholte, co-chair of the North Korea Freedom Coalition. “But refugee flows aren’t going to collapse the [North Korean] regime. If that was going to happen, it would have happened already during the famine, so their argument doesn’t hold water.”

She added that North Koreans don’t want to leave. “They leave because of Kim Jong-Il,” she said. “Those [North Korean refugees] in South Korea want to go back and take freedom with them.”

Two U.S. Christians entered North Korea in recent months with the same goal in mind. Robert Park, an evangelical Christian missionary, crossed the border on Dec. 25 with a letter calling for Kim Jong-Il to resign.

Officials immediately arrested Park, according to the regime’s Korean Central News Agency. He was later sentenced to eight years of hard labor but released in late February after making what many experts believe was a forced confession.

Fellow activist Aijalon Mahli Gomes entered North Korea on Jan. 25, the same news agency reported. Officials sentenced Gomes to nine years of hard labor and fined him 70 million new Won (US$518,520). At press time Gomes remained in detention.

Report from Compass Direct News 


Muslims said to fear that freedom to legally change religion would wreak societal havoc.

CAIRO, Egypt, May 12 (Compass Direct News) – In the dilapidated office here of three lawyers representing one of Egypt’s “most wanted” Christian converts, the mood was hopeful in spite of a barrage of death threats against them and their client.

At a court hearing on May 2, a judge agreed to a request by the convert from Islam to join the two cases he has opened to change his ID card to reflect his new faith. The court set June 13 as the date to rule on the case of Maher Ahmad El-Mo’otahssem Bellah El-Gohary’s – who is in hiding from outraged Islamists – and lawyer Nabil Ghobreyal said he was hopeful that progress thus far will lead to a favorable ruling.

At the same time, El-Gohary’s lawyers termed potentially “catastrophic” for Egyptian human rights a report sent to the judge by the State Council, a consultative body of Egypt’s Administrative Court. Expressing outrage at El-Gohary’s “audacity” to request a change in the religious designation on his ID, the report claims the case is a threat to societal order and violates sharia (Islamic law).

“This [report] is bombarding freedom of religion in Egypt,” said lawyer Said Faiz. “They are insisting that the path to Islam is a one-way street. The entire report is based on sharia.”

The report is counterproductive for Egypt’s aspirations for improved human rights, they said. In the eyes of the international community it is self-condemned, the lawyers said, because it is not based on Egypt’s civil law, nor does it uphold the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights that Egypt has signed.

The report stated that those who leave Islam will be subject to death, described El-Gohary as an “apostate” and called all Christians “infidels.”

“During the hearing, they [Islamic lawyers] were saying that Christians are infidels and that Christ was a Muslim, so we said, ‘OK, bring us the papers that show Jesus embraced Islam,’” Faiz said, to a round of laughter from his colleagues.

Ghobreyal, adding that the report says El-Gohary’s case threatens public order, noted wryly, “In Egypt we have freedom of religion, but these freedoms can’t go against Islam.”

The trio of young lawyers working on El-Gohary’s case, who formed an organization called Nuri Shams (Sunlight) to support Christian converts’ rights, said they have received innumerable threats over the phone and on the Internet, and sometimes even from their colleagues.

Churches Challenged

To date no Christian convert in Egypt has obtained a baptismal certificate, which amounts to official proof of conversion.

Churches fear that issuing such certificates would create a severe backlash. As a result, converts cannot apply for a change of religion on their ID, but El-Gohary was able to travel abroad to get a baptismal certificate from a well-established church. In April a Coptic Cairo-based priest recognized this certificate and issued him a letter of acceptance, or “conversion certificate,” welcoming him to the Coptic Orthodox community.

El-Gohary’s baptismal certificate caused a fury among the nation’s Islamic lobby, as it led to the first official church recognition of a convert. A number of fatwas (religious edicts) have since been issued against El-Gohary and Father Matthias Nasr Manqarious, the priest who helped him.

“The converts have no chance to travel, to leave, to get asylum, so we have to help them to get documents for their new religion,” Fr. Manqarious told Compass by telephone. “So I decided to help Maher El-Gohary and others like him. They can’t live as Christians in broad daylight.”

For several months El-Gohary has been in hiding, relying on others to meet his basic needs. When Compass spoke with him by phone earlier this month, he said he lives in fear for his life and worries about his 14-year-old daughter’s safety.

“I’m hiding. Someone brings me my food and water. I haven’t gone out in a week,” said El-Gohary. “Many Muslims and sheikhs … say if anyone sees Maher Gohary, he must kill him. My life is very difficult.”

His original case, filed in August of last year, included an attempt to change the religious affiliation on his teenage daughter’s ID, but he later dropped it after further legal consultation. El-Gohary said that when radical Muslims recognize his daughter on the streets, they warn her that they will kill her father when they find him.

“She’s afraid for me,” he said.

His church acceptance letter has re-kindled discussion of a bill proposed by parliamentary members affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, a hard-line Islamist opposition movement, which would make apostasy punishable by death, said El-Gohary’s lawyers. Human rights experts, however, say that such a bill does not stand a chance in the Egyptian Parliament and is primarily a smokescreen to induce fear in Egypt’s Christian converts from Islam.

Some Hope from Baha’is

Sources said the fact that the judge asked for a baptismal certificate and filed the letter of acceptance in the case represents progress in the ongoing struggle of Egyptian converts, who are not recognized in their own country.

Now that El-Gohary’s lawyers have produced the acceptance letter, the judge in the case finds himself in a bind, said Hassan Ismail, general secretary of the Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organizations.

“The judge is in a paradox with the document he asked for,” Ismail said. “It is difficult to accept it, and yet it is difficult having this document among those of the case.”

Ismail, who has worked for years defending the rights of both Baha’is and converts, said it is hard to predict what the judge will decide in June. Even with all the required documents and “proof” of El-Gohary’s conversion, he said, the judge may still deny his right to change religions.

“For us human rights activists, these decisions are political, not legal,” he said. “These sorts of documents put the government into a corner, and we are working hard to get them in order to push the government to make different decisions.”

At the age of 16 all Egyptians are required to obtain an ID that states their religion as Muslim, Christian or Jewish. These cards are necessary for virtually every aspect of life, from banking, to education and medical treatment.

Baha’is, who do not fall under the rubric of any of Islam’s “heavenly religions,” were forced to lie about their religion or not obtain cards until March, when in a historical decision Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court upheld a lower court’s 2008 ruling that all Egyptians have a right to obtain official documents, such as ID cards and birth certificates, without stating their religion.

The gains of Baha’is have been a gauge of sorts for the Christian convert community, even though in reality they are not granted the freedom to change their stated religion or leave it blank on their cards and the official registry.

“I’m very optimistic about the cases of minorities and converts in Egypt,” said Ismail. “I believe that the case of Baha’is was an indicator for converts … If we were able to push their case, then we can defend the rights of converts.”

The human rights activist said that although discrimination against converts who are seen as apostates from Islam is greater than that against those raised in other religions, ultimately converts will be able to gain legal ground. El-Gohary’s case, he said, will play an important role.

“After years of fighting, the Baha’is have rights,” he said. “I think converts will succeed even if it takes years. Many are expecting to see Maher’s case [succeed], because it’s well documented.”

Attorney Ghobreyal said that El-Gohary’s case is on solid legal footing based on Article 46 of the Egyptian Civil Code, which grants religious freedom to the country’s citizens.

In his mind it is irrational that the government gave rights to the Baha’is, who fall outside of the three heavenly religions, while not granting the same rights to Christian converts. His only explanation is that a governmental green light to people to leave Islam could wreak havoc.

Not only is there fear of the Muslim front reacting violently to such a decision, but “they’re afraid that if they allow it, then all Muslims will become Christians,” said Ghobreyal. “They know there are many converts, and they will all officially become Christians.”

The lawyer said there are rumors circulating that there are a few million converts eagerly awaiting the results of El-Gohary’s case. Egypt’s last census in 2006 did not factor in religion, so figures of the Coptic population are based on estimates. These range from 6 to 15 percent of the country’s 80-million population. It is not possible to estimate the number of converts, most of whom live in secrecy.

“Ten years ago, you never heard about a convert, but now you hear that someone is going to the court to ask to become a Christian,” said Ghobreyal.

Hegazy’s Hope

The first convert to file for a change on his ID card, Mohammed Ahmed Hegazy, said he was pleased with the progress of El-Gohary’s case and hoped that more converts would take the risk of joining their cause.

“I think that every case added to the convert case will be a help,” said Hegazy.

An outspoken critic of the refusal of Egypt’s established churches to openly baptize converts, Hegazy said that in El-Gohary’s case publicity and criticism pushed the church to take a step in the right direction in producing the conversion certificate.

“But this is not a big step, and there are many more that need to be taken and have not been,” he said. “Just to be clear, the [Egyptian] church has not given a baptism certificate, it has given an acceptance letter, and the church has declared they are not going to give a baptism paper … but we can’t deny that the step that the priest took to give the certificate was audacious.”

Hegazy, who lost his case in January 2008 and is waiting for an appeal date, was never able to get a baptism certificate, nor can he travel since he does not have a passport. If he returns to his hometown to apply for one, he risks losing his life.

He said he still hopes any of Egypt’s churches will help him by baptizing him and giving him a certificate in time for his appeal or for a new case he plans to open soon. Hegazy said that although his case is not as public as it used to be, he still faces danger when he leaves his house.

Although he is also in hiding and fears for his life, El-Gohary said he hopes his case opens the way for other converts to experience freedom.

“I hope this for all of those who want to live in the light and the sun; there are many families,” he said of Egypt’s converts. “I want to live in peace as a Christian. I hope my country gives me the freedom to worship my God and gives me my human rights.”

Egypt is a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council, an inter-governmental body made up of 47 states responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe. On April 18, 2007, in its written statement applying for a seat to the Human Rights Council, the representative of Egypt to the U.N. stated that if elected it would emphasize promoting cultural and religious tolerance, among other human rights.

Report from Compass Direct News