'Gideon' Pastors Speak Out for N. Korean Refugees

Korean-American pastors from California and across the United States gathered Tuesday to launch the first of a series of regional conferences aimed at informing pastors on China's atrocious policies towards North Korean refugees.

The Gideon's 300 LA Conference, hosted by the Korean Church Coalition (KCC), attracted some 350 pastors who were interested in learning about the plight of North Korean refugees and bringing the story back to their congregants. Organizers hope pastors across the United States will mobilize their churches to campaign against China's human rights violation ahead of the Beijing Olympics.

"In this campaign, we are proclaiming to China that 'if you want to host the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, in conformity with the Spirit of which the Olympic games represents, stop turning your backs on the North Korean refugees residing within your borders,'" wrote KCC president the Rev. Peter I. Sohn, in a letter.

"Grant them Refugee Status and grant them at least the minimal protection afforded to them under international law," he demanded.

Sohn called for the end of China's repatriation of North Koreans, given that more humane options are available, most notably, allowing refugees safe passage to a third country willing to take them. Both the United States and South Korea have welcomed North Korean refugees to settle in their country, but China has employed many tactics to block the refugees from escaping to these third countries.

China classifies North Korean refugees residing within its borders as "illegal economic migrants" even though the U.N. Special Rapporteur on North Korea has declared North Koreans who flee to China "refugees." Under the status of "illegal economic migrants," China treats the North Koreans as criminals, jailing or forcefully repatriating them back to North Korea where they face imprisonment, torture and sometimes execution for leaving the country – a state crime.

At least 500,000 North Koreans are believed to have crossed the border over to China in the past 10 years.

According to witnesses and human rights reports, the North Korean regime is particularly harsh on Christians, who are considered a serious threat to its power. There are many reports of Christians being publicly executed, tortured or imprisoned indefinitely simply for believing in Jesus Christ.

Around 200,000 Christians are believed to currently be in prison labor camps simply for their faith. Earlier this year, North Korea was listed for the sixth straight year as the No. 1 worst Christian persecutor by watchdog group Open Doors.

Worship of all gods beside those enforced in the state religion – a personality cult revolving around current dictator Kim Jong Il, and his deceased father, Kim Il Sung – is strictly prohibited.

Estimates show that there are up to 400,000 to 500,000 believers secretly practicing their faith in North Korea, according to Open Doors sources in North Korea.

Recently, attention has been turned to the plight of North Korean women and children, who arguably suffer the most in China.

"They (China) stand by and watch as North Korean girls and women are kidnapped and sold and resold as sex slaves," Sohn said. "They stand by and watch as North Koreans work as slaves for shelter and food. And when these North Korean refugees seek help from the authorities, or ask to be sent to a third country that is willing and to accept them, they repatriate them back to North Korea, where five out of six are murdered in prison.

"China is responsible for all of these abuses and for the murder by the North Korean government of numerous refugees," the KCC president accused.

During the regional conference, organizers will distribute "Let My People Go before the Beijing Olympics" banners, stickers, as well as DVDs and other materials to the participating pastors to take back to their home churches.

The campaign hopes that hundreds of thousands of banners and bumper stickers will be displayed throughout the United States before the Olympics Games.

Organizers had hoped to gather only 300 Korean-American pastors in their effort to replicate the biblical story of Gideon and his outnumbered army of 300 men who still defeated the massive Midianite forces with the help of God. With this famed story of defeating the enemy despite the odds, the pastors hoped to change the policy of big and powerful China despite their small number.

Following the LA event, Gideon's 300 will continue its campaign and hold conferences in Chicago, Houston, New York, Seattle and Toronto. All the conferences will be held before the Aug. 8, 2008, Beijing Olympics.

Korean Church Coalition came together in 2004 as a collective response to end the sufferings endured by North Koreans. The coalition represents more than 3,000 pastors and millions of their congregational members in every major city in the United States.

The "Let My People Go" campaign was launched in 2007 to seek cooperation from religious and humanitarian groups to win freedom for the 300,000 North Korean refugees currently residing in China.

The Gideon's 300 LA Conference ends Wednesday.

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