Thursday, September 8, 2011

Religious Freedom Understood Differently

Religion in North Korea is not an easy subject to talk about. There is a disconnect between appearance and reality that goes back to the time when North Korea based its policies on Marxism, considering religion superstition, the opium of the people, a tool of imperialism to exploit the masses. There have been significant changes since then, and an adviser to the Bishops Committee on Reconciliation with North Korea brings us up to date with her article in the Kyeongyang Magazine. 

From 1970, signs of change appeared with a thawing of the relations with the West. The religious federations began to come back to life and churches were restored. In the 1980s religious books and Christian religious services were allowed, including Catholic Masses; and churches were built.  Religion was grafted onto the Juche Ideology (independence and self-reliance).

In the country's constitution of 1972, it states: "Citizens are free to practice religion and  to speak against religion." It was amended later to: "Citizens have freedom to practice religion, build religious buildings and have religious services." The proviso that one has the freedom to speak against religion was dropped and replaced by "No one has the right to use religious influence to hurt the order of  society." Which the government is free to interpret in any way it wants. In the 1980s the  attitude toward religion again changed, as problems with the economy brought a desire for presenting to the world a better image of the country. The idea of bringing the South under their control was no longer pushed. Instead, the government decided to work with religious groups for a united Korea, with religion grafted onto their Juche ideology.

The way  people see the  religious issue in the North can be divided, says the writer, into two groups. One group sees churches being built, religious services being held, and religious groups being active, giving proof, they feel, that there is  religious freedom in the country. The other group says there is no real freedom of religion because of the divinization of the country's leader, and because the activities of the religious groups are more political than religious. Another viewpoint would agree with both groups, adding that though the practice of religion does exist in the North, if we look closely at the statues of the Labor Party of the North, they make no reference to religion, allow no freedom to evangelize and preach freely, and those who do are punished.

And also not to be forgotten, there has been persecution of many who have practiced their faith in the North. A house group in 2010 was dispersed, and the three leaders of the group executed, the others sent to prison. The writer suggests that the Church in the South, in its work of evangelization, set as one of its goal the task of helping the North  extend the current changes to a more meaningful appreciation of the value of religion.

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