Churches Unite in Mass Vigils for N. Korean Refugees

Dozens of Korean-American churches across the United States will unite Sunday evening for prayer vigils on behalf of "voiceless" North Korean refugees residing in China that are reportedly often abused, trafficked, or violently repatriated by Chinese authorities.

From Baltimore to San Francisco, 43 prayer vigils will be held at member churches of the Korean Church Coalition in 43 U.S. cities, each beginning at 6 p.m. and ending at 7:30 p.m. In addition to the U.S. vigils, KCC member churches in South Korea will hold similar events. There are more than a thousand KCC member churches in South Korea.

"Through these vigils, KCC will speak on and pray on behalf of the voiceless, the North Korean refugees residing in China, who have no voice of their own," said Sam Kim, executive director of KCC.

The July 20 mass prayer vigils are part of KCC's efforts to raise awareness and to help change China's policies towards North Korean refugees ahead of the Beijing Olympics.

The coalition's campaign, called "Let My People Go Before 2008 Beijing Olympics," aims to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people to display banners and bumper stickers throughout the country with the campaign's declaration before the Olympic begins.

Since April, the KCC has organized prayer vigils every Tuesday at one or more Chinese consulates in the United States and will continue to do so until the start of the Olympics on Aug. 8.

"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 an earlier letter.

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

Korean-American pastors across the United States have participated in KCC-organized conferences to learn about the plight of North Korean refugees and then to inform and mobilize their congregants.

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.

Many of the North Koreans who cross the border are forced to do so amid the starvation and persecution they face in their own country. North Korea has arguably the most oppressive government in the world with no respect for human rights or religious freedom.

North Korean citizens are arbitrarily imprisoned without trial if they are accused of criticizing the government or being a Christian – one of the worst crimes. All North Koreans are forced to adhere to a semi-personality cult revolving around dictator Kim Jong-il and his deceased father Kim Il-sung.

Around 200,000 Christians are believed to currently be in prison labor camps simply for their faith. It is estimated that there are around 400,000 to 500,000 believers secretly practicing their faith in North Korea, according to Open Doors sources in the country.

Because of North Korea's atrocious treatment of its citizens, many in the international community have criticized China's handling of North Korean refugees. Repatriation of these refugees, critics argue, would be similar to sending them to be tortured or even to their death.

"They (China) stand by and watch as North Korean girls and women are kidnapped and sold and resold as sex slaves," KCC president 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," Sohn stated.

Those that call for an end to China's repatriation of the refugees point out that many countries welcome the North Koreans to resettle in their land. 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.

Both U.S. presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain recently issued letters to the KCC expressing their support of defending the human rights of North Korean refugees. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in a letter dated Thursday also voiced her dismay at the "inhumane" conditions in North Korea and China and the suffering of North Korean refugees.

Other U.S. senators have also expressed their support of KCC's effort to improve the treatment of North Korean refugees.

It is believed at least 500,000 North Koreans have crossed the border over to China in the past 10 years.

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