Despite his nation’s history of brutality toward anyone expressing even the slightest interest in Christianity, South Korea’s presidential office, the Cheong Wa Dae, said Tuesday that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has expressed interest in a visit from Pope Francis.
The statement from Seoul reads:
“Chairman Kim said he will ‘ardently welcome the pope if he visits Pyongyang.’”
South Korean President Moon Jae-in is scheduled to visit the Vatican during a European tour later this month. It is believed he will deliver a personal message to the pontiff from his North Korean counterpart during that visit.
It is widely believed Kim is seeking Pope Francis’ blessing and support for the newly forged peace and denuclearization process on the Korean Peninsula. He could also seek a discussion about the ways his government and the Vatican could “cooperate” in the future.
The pontiff has been under fire in recent weeks over an agreement between the Vatican and Beijing over state-controlled bishops operating in neighboring China. It’s unclear if Kim is seeking a similar arrangement, which would allow him to control the message of churches in his country while also receiving some international political cover by appearing to open up his society to religion.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has cracked down brutally on religious groups in his own country, forcing them to take down crosses and images of Jesus, replacing them with pictures of himself. Bible-believing pastors and priests in the country have railed against the rolling back of religious liberties that have been afforded to the Chinese since Deng Xiaoping’s leadership.
The news reports also reflect back upon a hidden part of North Korea’s history—his great-grandparents, the parents of the country’s founder, Kim Il-sung, were devout Christians who were closely affiliated with a Christian college in Pyongyang. This part of their biography was re-written at the behest of Soviet leader Josef Stalin as part of the effort to establish the “Cult of Kim,” which replaces Christian principles for Marxism and worshipping Christ with bowing down to the leaders of the Kim dynasty.
There remains a “fable” in North Korea, however, that when Kim Il-sung underwent an important and dangerous surgery later in life, he asked the doctor to pray for him. They then prayed together.
Technically, the Workers’ Party of Korea Constitution mandates religious freedom, and ostensibly, there are three Christian churches in the capital city: two Protestant and one Catholic. Officially, there are approximately 10,000 registered Protestants and 4,000 registered Catholics in the country—although secret “home churches” have flourished in spite of likely punishment of torture and death if they are discovered.
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