Chinese policy to get rid of all missionaries by 2017?

Proselytizing by foreigners is officially illegal in China, and China is no longer turning a blind eye.

Paul Yoo, a South Korean missionary, had lived untroubled by authorities for years in northeastern Chinese city. The knock on Mr. Yoo’s door marked the beginning of a quiet forced evacuation of foreign missionaries, including hundreds of South Koreans, some of whom have worked to train and convert Chinese, and others who have helped Christian defectors from North Korea.

Those who remain live in mounting fear that they will be next, as China’s new president Xi Jinping seeks to rid the country of foreign influences and effectively nationalize Christian churches to bring them under state control.

“This crackdown, and the people being deported, has intensified starting from May,” said Rev. Peter Jung, director of Justice For North Korea, which supports North Korean defectors. And, he said, “the number of missionaries getting arrested has increased.”

The Chinese pressure on missionaries, however, extends far beyond the North Korean border, suggesting Beijing’s chief motivation is concern about religion.

“One of the aims of Xi Jinping’s policies is to get rid of all missionaries by 2017,” said one missionary who continues to work in north-eastern China.

Such a claim is impossible to verify. Mr. Xi, the Chinese president, has publicly said no such thing. But fears in the missionary community of a coming clean sweep offer a window into the degree of alarm that has spread. The missionary asked The Globe to reveal no potentially identifying details, including his age or nationality, how much time he and his wife have spent in China or the nature of their work there.

[Globe and Mail]

Chinese crackdown on missionaries to the North Koreans

Conditions in China have never been easy for foreign missionaries, and most try to keep a low profile. They work for so many different organizations and denominations that numbers are hard to come by. But from interviews with nearly a dozen former and active missionaries, experts and academics it’s clear at least hundreds – perhaps nearly 1,000 – have been forced out of China.

In early 2013, at the peak, China was home to some 2,000 to 4,000 missionaries from South Korea alone; U.S. missionaries made up large numbers as well.

The forced departures form the background to the detention a little more than two weeks ago of Canadians Kevin and Julia Garratt, a  Christian couple who had run a coffee shop in Dandong, a Chinese city on the North Korean border. Chinese authorities have accused them of stealing state secrets, but said little about what they have done wrong. Canadian officials believe their detention is likely China’s response to allegations of Chinese espionage in North America, including by a Canadian immigrant who is accused of co-ordinating hacking attacks to steal U.S. fighter jet secrets.

Yet the Garratts also stood at a dangerous nexus of issues that stir Chinese suspicion, by virtue of their personal faith, their humanitarian work with North Korea and the donations from Canadian churchgoers that supported them. That background almost certainly attracted the attention of authorities, though it may not be the primary reason for the couple’s detention.

China is North Korea’s closest ally, but the two nuclear powers still operate with great of mutual suspicion, and the Garratts live in a place that is the focus of intense Chinese military and intelligence scrutiny. Some of that is directed at Christian missionaries who play a critical role in the underground railroad that secrets North Korean defectors out of China.

“If you are a North Korean in China, the only place where you can realistically be given food and shelter is a church,” said Andrei Lankov, a Russian scholar and expert on North Korea. Often, that means the involvement of missionaries, who “actively proselytize among the North Korean refugees,” and train them in spreading Christianity inside North Korea.

The eviction of missionaries is in some ways a mark of China’s own perceived global strength, as an increasingly confident Beijing seeks to define China, an atheist state with government-run churches, on its own terms. Yet it also threatens to revive a point of conflict between China and Western nations, which have long criticized the Communist country for its refusal to allow free pursuit of religion.

[Globe and Mail]

The Church in North Korea

North Korea’s cryptic response to the Pope’s visit to Seoul is emblematic of the nation’s complicated relationship with religion in general. Its constitution formally grants citizens religious freedom, but in reality, religious practice is punishable by public execution or banishment to the nation’s kwan-li-so prison camps.

The few churches in Pyongyang are maintained by the state in order to give the appearance of religious practice; congregants are actors bussed in to services for the benefit of tourists.

It hasn’t always been this way. North Korea actually has a long history with Christianity. Catholic missionaries first arrived on the Korean Peninsula in 1784. There, prominent Korean Studies historian Andrei Lankov reports, the Church took root with such success that by the 1920s, Pyongyang was known among missionaries as “the Jerusalem of the East.” Kim Il-sung himself grew up in a Christian household, and was reportedly a church organist as a teenager.

In her book Escape from North Korea, journalist Melanie Kirkpatrick writes of North Korea’s underground church. Figures reporting on the size of such organizations are inherently subject to inaccuracy, but her estimate puts their number at 200,000 to 400,000 adherents, somewhere around 1% of North Korea’s population.

Though their numbers are small, Christians in North Korea are important for at least two key reasons. First, they are faithful in quiet opposition to an ideology of state propaganda that amounts to a religion of dictator worship. The modest ideological diversity they represent is anathema to authoritarianism and may constitute the seeds of a freer future North Korea.

Second, Christians are key actors in what Kirkpatrick calls Asia’s underground railroad – a network of safe houses that help North Korean defectors escape to China and beyond. Defectors’ testimonies bring to light the heinous human rights abuses of the Kim regime, which will eventually oblige the international community to respond. The defectors also reach out to their family and friends in North Korea with reports of the outside world, exposing what the state propaganda calls “paradise on earth” for the hellish prison it really is.

[Huffington Post]

A revival of North Korean Christianity

In 1988, North Korean authorities suddenly decided to build a Catholic and a Protestant church in Pyongyang. North Korean refugees say that many Pyongyangites were shocked one day when they saw a building in the neighborhood that looked remarkably like a church (from propaganda pictures), with a cross atop its spire. For decades, North Koreans had been told that such places could possibly be only dens of spies and sadistic butchers (their reaction was perhaps similar to the average D.C. resident if they found a big al-Qaeda recruiting center in their neighborhood, complete with a large neon sign).

At present, there are four officially tolerated churches in Pyongyang (two Protestant, one Catholic and one Orthodox). Opinions are divided on how authentic these activities are. In any case, these political shows in Pyongyang should not distract us from the real revival of North Korean Christianity, which quietly began in the late 1990s in the Sino-North Korean borderlands. In the late 1990s, many North Koreans fled to China trying to escape a disastrous famine in their country. In 1998-99, the number of such refugees peaked at around 200,000.

Most of them established good contacts with ethnic Koreans in China. By that time, many Korean-Chinese had been converted to Christianity – which is increasingly seen worldwide as the major religion of the Korean diaspora. Thus, refugees came into contact with South Korean missionaries and/or their ethnic Korean converts, and many of them were converted. It helped that Korean churches in China were perhaps the only institutions that were ready to provide the refugees with assistance and a modicum of protection. Experienced refugees told novices that in the most desperate situation, when all else fails, they should look for a church.

Churches were also very involved with a kind of underground railway that helped North Korean refugees in China to move South. Inside South Korea, church communities are the major institution that provides otherwise generally neglected North Korean refugees with support and protection. One should not therefore be surprised that a significant number of North Korean refugees convert to Christianity soon after their arrival to the South.

Meanwhile in China, from around 2000, many missionaries began to train refugees to spread Christianity in North Korea proper. Many converts were indeed willing to take the risk and go back to their native villages and towns with Korean-language Bibles and other literature. Thus, North Korea’s catacomb church was born.

The North Korean government does not look upon such developments favorably. If a returning refugee is known to be in contact with missionaries he/she will face far more severe punishment. For the average non-religious border crosser, the punishment is likely to be a few months of imprisonment, but known religious activist is likely to spend 10 years in prison.

Nonetheless, the risks do not deter either missionaries or converts.

[NKNews.org]