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N. Korea's sole Catholic church draws 70 to 80 Christians on weekends: research

All Headlines 17:05 October 19, 2018

SEOUL, Oct. 19 (Yonhap) -- Following Pope Francis' positive reaction to an invitation from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un Thursday, Catholicism in the communist North is drawing fresh attention.

There are about 3,000 Catholics and one Catholic church in North Korea, according to a research paper published by South Korean Catholic priest Kim Yeon-su.

The North Korean Catholic Association serves as a pivot of religious activities by the North's Catholic Christians, according to Kim.

On weekends, about 70 to 80 Catholics gather at Jangchung Cathedral, the North's only cathedral, located in Pyongyang, the capital city. On major festivals, the congregation swells to around 200.

A file photo provided by the North's Korean Central News Agency shows foreign and North Korean Catholics attending a service at the Jangchung Cathedral in Pyongyang. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Yonhap)

Foreign Catholic Christians, including diplomats and correspondents stationed in the North, as well as foreign travelers, also visit Jangchung Cathedral.

Built in 1988 on a 2,000-square-meter lot in Pyongyang's southern district of Sonkyo, Jangchung Cathedral has a capacity of 250 people, as well as an altar, confessional, vestry, pictures of sacred subjects and sacred objects.

If Pope Francis visits North Korea, there is a good chance that he will hold mass there.

At the time of the Korean Peninsula's liberation from Japan in 1945, there were about 55,000 Catholics in the North Korean region.

Due to the North Korean authorities' suppression of religious activities, however, the number of Catholics has gradually dwindled. The North's regime sees religion as the opium of the people and thinks it should be ultimately eliminated.

Nevertheless, North Korea stipulates in Article 68 of its constitution that citizens have freedom of religion and externally proclaims that it has a policy of embracing religion, allowing a small number of Catholics in the North to regularly practice their faith.

As Jangchung Cathedral is not affiliated with the Holy See, however, its congregants hold Sunday celebrations in the absence of a priest.

South Korean Catholic priest Lee Eun-hyung, who visited North Korea in 2015, said, "It is difficult to say North Korean Catholics are leading a life of faith in a complete sense. We have wanted to send a priest to the North but both sides need more discussions on the matter."

Lee also said, "Jangchung Cathedral has suffered severe land subsidence and the matter will be addressed only after the problems of denuclearization and sanctions are resolved."

Some say that North Korea allows religious activities under the control of the United Front Department of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea in order to claim to be a normal state.

"It is hard to believe in the existence of God in North Korea because North Koreans are brainwashed from childhood to believe in the ideology of juche," a North Korean defector said. "Juche" means "self-reliance."

"The North Koreans known to be Catholic Christians are actually a selected group of people," the defector argued.

ycm@yna.co.kr
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