Sunday, April 10, 2005

North Koreans Celebrate Mass for Pope

N Koreans hold Mass for late Pope

A memorial Mass for Pope John Paul II attended by about 100 people has been held in the only Catholic Church in North Korea's capital, Pyongyang.
South Korean television aired footage of the Mass after being given the green light by the North Korean government.

Coverage of the service had been taken by an American media company.

According to estimates, there are some 3,000-4,000 Roman Catholics in North Korea, although religious activities are restricted in the country.

"When I first heard about the Pope passing away I was very surprised, although of course I knew already that he had been sick" said Kim Yong-il, a church official at the Chang Chung Church in Pyongyang.

The state media waited until 5 March before finally announcing the death of the pontiff, three days after he died.

Truth be told, I never thought of Catholics in North Korea.

Here's the U.S. State Department on North Korea's religious demography

The country has a total area of approximately 47,000 square miles, and its population is approximately 21 million. The number of religious believers is unknown but has been estimated by the Government at 10,000 Protestants, 10,000 Buddhists, and 4,000 Catholics. Estimates by South Korean church-related groups are considerably higher. In addition the Chondogyo Young Friends Party, a government-approved group based on a traditional religious movement, still exists. According to the Government, the number of practitioners of the Chondogyo religion is approximately 40,000.

There has been a limited revival of Buddhism with the translation and publication of Buddhist scriptures that had been carved on 80,000 wooden blocks and kept at the Haeinsa temple in the South. In the late 1980's, the Government sent two Roman Catholic men to study for ordination in Rome. However, the two returned before being ordained priests, and it still is not known whether any Catholic priests, whose role is a fundamental element for the practice of the Catholic faith, remain in the country. Seoul Archbishop Nicholas Jin-Suk Cheong, appointed by the Pope as Apostolic Administrator of Pyongyang, was quoted in July 2000 as stating that while there were 50 priests in the country in the 1940's, it was not known if they still were alive in July 2000.

In 2002, according to a South Korean press report, the chairman of the Association of North Korean Catholics stated that the Catholic community in the North has no priest, but that weekly prayer services are held at the Changchung Catholic Church in Pyongyang.

Two Protestant churches under lay leadership--the Pongsu and Chilgok churches--and a Roman Catholic church (without a priest) have been open since 1988 in Pyongyang. One of the Protestant churches is dedicated to the memory of former North Korean leader Kim Il Sung's mother, Kang Pan Sok, who was a Presbyterian deacon. Several foreigners resident in Pyongyang attend Korean services at these churches on a regular basis. Although some foreigners who have visited the country over the years stated that church activity appears staged, others believe that church services are genuine, although sermons contain both religious and political content supportive of the regime.

The Government claims, and some visitors agree, that there are more than 500 authorized "house churches." Hundreds of religious figures have visited the country in recent years, including papal representatives, the Reverend Billy Graham, and religious delegations from the Republic of Korea, the United States, and other countries. Vatican representatives, including Archbishop Celestino Migliore, Vatican Undersecretary for Relations with States, visited the country in November 2000 and in May 2002. On each occasion, the delegation reported meeting with the Catholic community in Pyongyang, and with officials of the Association of North Korean Catholics. During the 2002 visit, the delegation celebrated the Feast of the Ascension with the local and international Catholic community at the Changchung Church in Pyongyang.

In July 2001, a delegation from the Seoul Archdiocese of the Catholic Church visited the country and met with officials of the Association of North Korean Catholics. Overseas religious relief organizations also have been active in responding to the country's food crisis. An overseas Buddhist group has been operating a factory in the Najin-Sonbong Free Trade Zone since 1998 to produce food for preschool children. A noodle factory established by contributions from Catholics from the Seoul Archdiocese opened in 2001. The Unification Church, which has business ventures in the country, is constructing an interfaith religious facility in Pyongyang.

There are an estimated 300 Buddhist temples in the country. Most of the temples are regarded as cultural relics, but religious activity is permitted in some of them. On June 4, 2002, Kim Jong Il visited the Ryangchon Buddhist temple in South Hamgyong Province. Although his comments during the visit centered on preserving the country's cultural relics, his appearance at any religious site is noteworthy.

There have been unconfirmed reports of members of underground Christian churches. Some older citizens who were religious believers before 1953 reportedly have maintained their faith in secret over the years.


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