[UCA News] South Korean Catholics seek healing across border

The division of the Korean Peninsula has outlasted the Cold War, numerous political leaders and repeated attempts at rapprochement. But as the 70th anniversary of division approaches next year, a group of Catholic clergy in South Korea is seeking engagement with the controversial state-sanctioned Church in North Korea in the hope of overcoming decades of separation and confrontation between the countries.

The Committee for the Reconciliation of the Korean People is working to hold a conference with the Pyongyang-approved Joseon Catholic Association next year to mark the anniversary and pray for peace, in the latest effort by South Korean Catholics to bridge the sides.

“The intention of the God we trust in is telling us to overcome division and conflict, and achieve reconciliation and concord,” Fr Lee Eun-hyung, the secretary-general of the organization under the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea, told ucanews.com. “It is saying let’s meet and pray together to overcome the current danger and crisis. The goal of this event is to say let’s gather our minds in prayer for peace.”

Lee said representatives from both sides agreed in principle to a faith conference during a meeting in Beijing last month but said an exact date and venue has yet to be set.

The group would need the approval of the governments of both Koreas for any event to go ahead.

The Catholic Church has often been associated with liberal activism in South Korea, a key focus of which is engagement with North Korea. In May, Cardinal Yeom Soo-jung, the archbishop of Seoul, visited an industrial park in North Korea jointly run by both governments. The South Korean hierarchy also invited its neighbor to send worshippers to events related to Pope Francis’ visit in August, though Pyongyang declined the offer.

Cooperation with North Korea, however, remains especially politically sensitive in a country that remains technically at war with its neighbor. South Korea’s sweeping National Security Law makes praise of the Kim Jong-un regime a crime and prohibits contact between the sides without prior government permission.

“The biggest challenge is the political situation between South and North Korea. I hope political influence does not influence religious or private exchanges, but if you look at the process up until now, it doesn’t look like it will be easy,” said Lee.

Also fraught is the very nature of the so-called Church north of the border. North Korea is ranked the least free country for practicing Christianity by Open Doors, an American NGO that tracks religious persecution worldwide. Extensive defector testimony has documented the imprisonment and execution of Christians for practicing their faith.

The fate of the Church could hardly have diverged more widely on the other side of the border: The Church in South Korea managed to almost triple its congregation between 1985 and 2005, defying the decline seen in other developed countries.

“They [the Kim regime] see it as a major challenge, a challenge coming from a completely different philosophical viewpoint, on the one hand, but also pretending to be a universal explanation of everything, like juche,” said Andrei Lankov, a professor at Seoul’s Kookmin University and longtime North Korea watcher, referring to the state ideology of self-reliance.

A state-approved Church has existed in the capital Pyongyang since 1988, but defectors and human rights groups consider it a sham set up to fool outside visitors.

Andrei said that while genuine believers may exist within it, the North Korean Catholic leadership is largely comprised of members of the State Security Department, the regime’s secret police.

But he added that it is possible they could be influenced to question the regime through meetings with outsiders.

“They are human beings, they have brains,” said Lankov. “If you look, say… at the disintegration of the Soviet Union, you will be surprised how many of the subversive ideas got to the Soviet Union through the KGB, the Foreign Ministry, through all these carefully selected people.”

Lee himself acknowledged that there are no legitimate priests in the country, but expressed hope of reaching North Koreans with a Catholic background.

“There are no priests but there are people who have been baptized. There are people who were baptized before the division, and there are also people involved in the religious exchange process who have been baptized,” he said.

Asked about the possible presence of government agents among purported Catholic representatives, Lee said it was hard to comment on an “internal problem”.

“There are many disappointing things to me about the religious conditions in North Korea, but I think it is fortunate that there is a representative group with whom to push for a meeting.”

Lee was adamant that their modest proposal could eventually grow into something much bigger for the benefit of all.

“Although it is now just a small and simple meeting, I believe these efforts for a meeting will bear large fruit one day through the Lord.”

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[The Christian Science Monitor] On first trip to Asia, Pope Francis greets a growing congregation

The following article was originally published in The Christian Science Monitor. — John. 

At South Korea’s most prominent cathedral, worshippers must come early. Like they do every week, Catholics attending midday mass at Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul on Sunday waited in long lines outside in the hope of getting a seat.

While large attendance is the norm at the church located in one of the capital’s busiest shopping areas, Sunday’s sermon held special significance ahead of Pope Francis’ visit. He arrives here Thursday for a five day visit, his first trip to Asia as pontiff.

The visit highlights the remarkable growth of the Roman Catholic Church in a country that has defied international trends by simultaneously becoming more wealthy and more religious. Since the last visit of a pope to South Korea in 1989, the number of Catholics here has almost tripled, rising to more than 10 percent of the population and a third of all Christians.

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“This visit by his Holiness to Korea has a very special meaning for us,” Father Luke Koh Chan-keun told the congregation, which included dozens of worshippers who stood due to a lack of seats. “He is coming to … pray for forgiveness and reconciliation between the divided people of South andNorth Korea. We hope that the Korean church can become the center of Asia through his visit.”

Social causes appeal  

Part of the resilience of the Catholic Church in South Korea compared to Protestant churches that have seen declines in followers here is due to its active involvement in largely liberal social causes, according to some observers.

From being heavily involved in the pro-democracy movement in the 1970s and 80s, Catholic priests and laity have in recent years taken positions on more contentious issues. Dozens of Korean Jesuits and local priests and nuns have been arrested since 2011 in protests against the construction of a naval base on the popular tourist draw Jeju Island. Priests also protested the erection of high voltage power lines in Miryang, a small city in the southeast of the country.

“Those social activities, movements make ordinary people regard Catholicism, generally speaking, as kind of a religion they can count on, or they can trust,” says Hwang Kyung-hoon, the head of the Center for Asian Theology Solidarity at the Woori Theology Institute in Seoul.

It is also clear that many Koreans are impressed by Pope Francis’ image as a humble pontiff uninterested in the pomp of the office.

“He is humble and always trying to be with the people who really need some help,” says Hwang Eun-heay, a young hospital worker in Seoul who plans to watch the main events online.

While Protestantism is still the dominant Christian religion in Korea, it has failed to keep pace with the Catholic Church’s rise. Its proportion of followers fell by 1.5 percent between 1995 and 2005, and various denominations have been plagued by scandals in recent years. Most recently, Rev. Cho Yong-gi, the founder of the Yoido Full Gospel Church, believed to have the world’s largest congregation, was sentenced to three years in prison for embezzling church funds.

High expectations 

Such goodwill and admiration mean that Pope Francis’ visit, timed to coincide with World Youth Day, also comes burdened with heavy expectations. The Catholic and broader Christian community hope his presence can provide solace to a society grappling with income inequality, relations with North Korea, and the lingering trauma of April’s Sewol ferry disaster that killed hundreds of schoolchildren.

After meeting President Park Geun-hye on Thursday, Pope Francis is set to meet survivors of the Sewol and families of the victims at a mass in Daejeon, a city some 80 miles south of Seoul, on Friday. On his final day on Monday, he will dedicate mass at Myeongdong Cathedral to peace and reconciliation between the two Koreas.

“The Pope’s visit is a visit for peace in our country, and because Korean society these days is a little disordered, it would be a great help if Korean society could come together,” says Kim Ji-seong, a health worker who attended Sunday’s midday Mass in Myeongdong.

Catholicism is widely considered to have had its formal start on the Korean Peninsula in 1784, with the establishment of a prayer house by Yi Sung-hun, a Korean baptized in Beijing who formed his community in Pyongyang. An estimated 10,000 Catholics were killed in the 18th and 19th centuries by the Confucian authorities of the day, a chapter that will be marked by Pope Francis on Saturday when he beautifies 124 martyrs.

Protests 

Amid such anticipation, controversy and signs of unmet expectations have already emerged before the pontiff has stepped foot in the country.

Some families of the victims of the Sewol and their supporters, who have been on hunger strike for the passage of a special law to investigate the disaster, have vowed to continue their protest at Gwanghwamun Square, the site of Saturday’s beatification ceremony.

For others such as the young hospital worker Hwang, consoling words alone might just be enough.

“I just hope that he can console the people who are suffering and fighting for what’s right,” she says. “I also want his love, kindness and braveness to affect people so they can do what’s right and gain the courage to say the right thing out loud.”