History was made this week as a delegation of religious leaders from South Korea crossed into the communist ruled North on an official visit.
The Conference of Religion for Peace delegation includes representatives from the Catholic Catholic Church and other Christian churches, Buddhism, Confucianism, shamanism and other traditional Korean religions. Led by Catholic Archbishop Kim Hee-joong, the leaders stated the rare trip is aimed at “helping bring the two Koreas back onto a path of reconciliation and cooperation”.
Lord David Alton is a member of the British House of Lords. A long time campaigner for human rights in North Korea, in particular the right to religious freedom, he is also travelling to the reclusive state this week to deliver an address at the new Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, founded by a South Korean Christian once condemned to death by the North.
He notes the significance of the religious leaders visit to Pyongyang – once known as the Jerusalem of Asia – in the week that the Universal Church celebrates the memory of the Korean Martyrs, between 8 and 10 thousand men and women who died for their faith in the 19th century.
“In the North, it reminds me a little of the English Catholic Church in penal times. It was imagined that Catholicism had been wiped out, but it was always there, under the surface, with people waiting for “The Catholic Spring” as Cardinal John Henry Newman put it in the 19th century , the day in which the Faith could flower again. In a place called Anju 60 km North of Pyongyang, I was struck, when I asked the Mayor if there were any Churches. She replied that they had all been destroyed during the Korean War; but then I asked if there were any believers and she said yes and that the people still meet in the rubble of the destroyed church building every week”.
According to the FIDES news service, the visit will last until Sept. 24, and includes a visit to the Catholic Church in Changchung and the Protestant church in Pongsu, a meeting with members of the “Religious Council of North Korea” and, finally, a symbolic moment of prayer for peace on Mount Baekdusan, the highest peak on the Korean peninsula.
Catholic Bishop Peter Kang of Cheju and President of the Episcopal Conference of South Korea said, “The visit of a delegation of religious leaders in North Korea is a gesture to keep an open channel with the North. But we need to be realistic, and not have any great illusions. Religions will continue to bring humanitarian aid to the population of the North who suffer from hunger, and this is the interest of Pyongyang. Believers in the North are closely monitored and religious freedom is denied”.
Listen to Emer McCarthy’s full interview with Lord David Alton: