Churches Showcase Glimmer of Religious Freedom

AS the piano-player finishes the hymn and the choir sings a last note, the congregation at North Korea's only Protestant church bow their heads to hear a sermon, something only recently allowed in this communist-run society.

It is a sermon that talks of God, but also calls for North and South Korean unification. The pastor then asks for all "political prisoners" in South Korea to be released. "Amen," the 300 or so church-goers say.

Since 1988, two churches, Protestant and Roman Catholic, as well as a Buddhist temple, have been allowed to operate under the guidance of the communist Workers' Party, after decades in which an atheist dictatorship suppressed religion.

The result is a token display of religion heavily controlled by the regime. In practice, these houses of worship are more showcases for foreigners than a breath of freedom for the faithful.

They were originally constructed in anticipation of North Korea co-hosting the 1988 Olympics with the South. "The government told us to build a church and gave us money for the construction," says Protestant pastor Lee Song Bong.

The Rev. Lee says there are about 1,000 Christians in Pyongyang, and maybe 10,000 nationwide, out of 20 million North Koreans. Many worship in private homes, and all are controlled by the party's Federation of Korean Churches.

Missionary activity is banned and the state's ideology, juche, which emphasizes national self-reliance, discourages conversion. "Those who believe in juche do not believe in God. It's hard to penetrate their thinking with Christianity," Lee said.

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