Tag Archive: Underground Church

Growing Christianity in China

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Among the actions China has been guilty of: Detentions, the kidnapping of bishops, crackdowns on underground churches, as well as foreign missionaries on their North Korean border, and in the past few months, even entire churches have been torn down in China under the premise of building code violations. The Christian community has reacted in large numbers, with thousands showing up to protest the demolitions.

The rapidly growing popularity of religion may be seen as a threat to the Communist Party’s authority. “There’s a pattern of pendular movement in the Chinese government’s stance towards religion, of being repressive and then of being accommodating,” says Lionel Jensen, Associate Professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures, at the University of Notre Dame. “I think that the Chinese government doesn’t know how to go about assessing the strain along those lines.”

So when Pope Francis was given permission to fly over China on his way to and from South Korea, many saw it as a sign of hope for religious freedom in China. The state-run Global Times calls it a sign of “possible détente.”

Meanwhile, there are religious groups in China that have not been sanctioned by the state that worship underground.

Jin Tianming is a priest and member of Beijing Shouwang Church, an underground Protestant community. His group of worshipers has had trouble finding a permanent location to hold church gatherings, frequently suffering harassment from police, with members of the church arrested or detained on occasion. “We put our beliefs above society. I don’t think the two are compatible in any way,” says Jin.

The existence of unregistered religious groups makes it difficult to calculate the number of Christians in China. A Pew Research Center study from 2011 estimates the number of Christians inside China at 67 million, about 5% of the country’s total population at the time, amongst which around 10 million are Catholics. This is compared to 10 million Christians in total in 1996.

According to researchers, the numbers are rising quickly. Professor Fenggang Yang, director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University, has predicted that China will be home to the largest Christian population by 2030.


Reasons why North Korea is not the worst place on earth to be a Christian

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North Korea has been described as “the worst place on earth to be a Christian.” The leader of one ministry working with the North Korean Underground Church points out that is not how the Christians of North Korea themselves feel, as well as offering his own perspective.

The Rev. Eric Foley, CEO of Seoul USA, says “Our reckoning that North Korea is the worst place to be a Christian says more about our own understanding of Christianity than it does about North Korea.” Adds Foley, “North Korean underground Christians are among the least likely group to defect since they feel their existence in North Korea has divine purpose.”

Foley offers his list of “10 Reasons North Korea is not the Worst Place to be a Christian”, amongst them:

  1. If you are a Christian in a country where no Christians are suffering for Jesus you probably ought to be more concerned — than if you are a Christian in a country where nearly every Christian is suffering for Jesus.
  2. Jesus said, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you…For your reward is great in heaven” (Matthew 5: 11–12).
  3. We Western Christians sometimes confuse God with Mammon. North Korean Christians daily see the difference clearly.


Missionary activity in North Korea

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Missionaries have sought to evangelize in North Korea, as the totalitarian country forbids independent religious activities. Although North Korea contains a number of state-controlled churches, they are considered for show to international audiences, according to a report by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea.

Religion, especially Christianity, is viewed as a political threat because the state does not condone any belief system other than its official state ideology, according to the report.

Witnesses claim that underground churches function inside North Korea, according to the U.N. report. Also, missionaries and underground churches have secretly set up in China near the border to aid defectors.

North Korea is currently holding Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American, who was arrested in November 2012. Bae was sentenced in May 2013, accused of trying to topple the North Korean government and bringing religious activities into the country. He has remained in North Korean custody despite efforts by the U.S. and his family.

More recently, North Korea’s Supreme Court sentenced a South Korean man to life of hard labor for committing “hostile acts” against the country, according to its state-run news agency, KCNA. The South Korean, identified as Kim Jong Uk, averted the death sentence because he allegedly “repented of his crimes,” which included an attempt to set up an underground church inside the country.

Kim said he had worked as a missionary for several years on the Chinese side of the border with North Korea, running a church that sought North Korean converts.


A revival of North Korean Christianity

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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.


A new North Korean declaration of war on Christians?

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Since November, North Korea has arrested a Korean American missionary, a South Korean missionary, and an Australian missionary. Christian News Wire asks, “Do these arrests represent a declaration of war on Christians?”

Not a new one, says the CEO of one North Korea ministry. According to the Rev. Eric Foley of Seoul USA, “It’s important to remember that the war on Christians was declared by North Korea with its formal establishment as a state in 1948 and has been unrelenting ever since.”

Foley says that those being held — Korean American Kenneth Bae, South Korean Kim Jong Uk, and Australian John Short — should be remembered in our prayers “along with the 30,000 North Korean underground Christians who are paying the price of faith in quiet anonymity in North Korea’s concentration camps.”

Foley notes that “… We can conclude with certainty is that there is no ‘back door’ into North Korea — no strategy for sharing the gospel there that does not involve paying the highest of personal prices. This is what North Korean underground Christians have known and practiced for years, and Bae, Kim, and Short have now joined that story personally.”

Foley says that what has surprised him the most personally about North Korean underground Christians is their acceptance that the practice of their faith will naturally lead them to imprisonment in a concentration camp. “They do not regard imprisonment with surprise or outrage, as if it were unusual,” notes Foley.

“They regard the camps as their mission field and see everything that leads up to their imprisonment as training for that most grueling of missionary services. For North Korean Christians,” says Foley, “the imprisonment is when missionary service truly begins.”

The North Korean Underground Church

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One of the first things Eric Foley, the co-founder of Seoul USA, learned about the North Korean underground church is that it is not a group to be pitied. About 10 years ago Foley asked a member of the underground church how he could pray for them. He recalls the North Korean’s response, “You, pray for us? We pray for you … because South Korean and American churches believe challenges in the Christian faith are solved by money, freedom, and politics. It’s only when all you have is God do you realize God is all you need.”

Unlike the Chinese underground church, North Korean Christians can’t risk gathering together because spies are everywhere. Instead, they worship in their own household or in the common areas, like while walking down the road out of earshot.

Foley estimates about 100,000 Christians live in North Korea, with about a third of them in concentration camps. Members of the church have told Foley they see concentration camps as just another mission field — North Korean officials have had to separate Christians from other prisoners because they keep sharing the gospel.

As North Korea fell under Communist rule after World War II, Christians realized they would soon face intense persecution. Some escaped to South Korea, where they could worship freely, but those who stayed chose four foundational pillars of Christianity they could pass on to future generations.

Physical copies of the Bible are rare for poor households, as government officials regularly check their homes. If officials find a Bible, the government will send the family to concentration camps or kill them. Seoul USA has been able to send Bibles over to North Korea using balloons — 50,000 Bibles dropped into the country this past year. The group also produces short-wave radio programs with North Korean defectors reading the Bible, as about 20 percent of North Koreans illegally own radios.

The government deems Christianity a threat because North Korea’s Juche ideology, which mixes Marxism with worship of the “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung and his family, is partially copied from Christianity. Kim, who attended church until eighth grade, took Christian concepts like the trinity, church services, and hymns and made it all about himself. If people found out about Christ, they’d see Kim and his lineage as the frauds they are.

With a zero-tolerance policy for Christianity, Christians are careful who they tell about their faith. They don’t reveal their belief to their spouses until years after marriage, and they can’t tell their children until they turn 15, as teachers are trained to extract such information from students.

Foley has also met defectors who “know Bible stories told differently or some Christian songs. North Korean Christians are very careful to pass on the treasure and for their family members to guard it and only over time realize what it is.” Seoul USA sees its role as discipling the church in North Korea by providing resources like the radio and Bibles, as well as starting Underground University to train North Korean defectors to become missionaries to their own people.

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