WCC Head to Visit North Korea

The general secretary of the World Council of Churches will begin his pastoral visit to churches in North Korea on Saturday.

Responding to the invitation of the Korean Christian Federation of North Korea, the Rev. Dr. Samuel Kobia will visit the Democratic People's Republic of Korea from Oct. 17 to Oct. 20. During his stay, the WCC head and the accompanying delegation will meet with churches as well as government officials to learn about the situation of congregations in the reclusive state, according to WCC.

Kobia is also scheduled to preach at Bong Soo Church in Pyongyang.

The ecumenical delegation's visit comes just days after U.S. evangelist Franklin Graham met with North Korea's foreign minister. Graham arrived in Pyongyang Tuesday in an effort "to help improve better relations and to have better understanding" between United States and North Korea.

It was Graham's third visit to the so-called hermit kingdom. The evangelist has had a long history with North Korea, dating back to his late mother Ruth Bell Graham attending mission school in Pyongyang and his father Billy Graham visiting the country in 1992 and 1994. The relief organization he now leads, Samaritan's Purse, has also worked in North Korea since 1997.

Upon announcing its visit to North Korea, WCC similarly highlighted its ties to the troublesome communist country.

Though WCC has supported the Korean Christian Federation of North Korea for only a few years, it has had relations with the churches in North Korea for the past 25 years. The first official visit by WCC to the communist state took place in 1985.

This week's visit will be the second for a WCC general secretary in ten years.

Despite the recent visit by Christian leaders, North Korea has established the reputation as the world's worst persecutor of Christians. While there are some "open" Christians in the capital Pyongyang, almost all the country's Christians are forced to worship in underground churches.

It is illegal to be a Christian or to believe in any faith in North Korea other than a semi-personality cult revolving around dictator Kim Jong-il and his deceased father. Being discovered a Christian can result in imprisonment in labor camps, torture or even public execution.

Dictator Kim Jong-Il is said to be greatly afraid of the expansion of Christianity in North Korea. He reportedly attributes the fall of communism in Eastern Europe to the expansion of Christianity and fears he will be toppled if the religion grows in the country.

Open Doors ranked North Korea as the No. 1 persecutor of Christians for the seventh year in a row in its 2009 World Watch List. And the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended earlier this year that the State Department re-designate North Korea as part of the list of "countries of particular concern" for its systematic and egregious violations of religious freedom.

There are an estimated 400,000 Christians in North Korea who live under the constant threat of imprisonment, torture or public execution if authorities discover their Christian faith. An estimated 200,000 Christians currently are in prison labor camps because of their faith, according to Open Doors.

The WCC Commission of the Churches on International Affairs since the early 1980s has worked on an initiative aimed at peace, reconciliation and reunification of the Korean peninsula that has brought together Christian leaders from North and South Korea.

After the WCC delegation's visit to North Korea this week, members will travel to Hong Kong to participate in an Oct. 21-23 international consultation on peace, reconciliation and reunification of the Korean peninsula.