Asia Religious Freedom

China and North Korea arrest and condemn believers and violate the fundamental human right of religious freedom.

In the US, we argue about religious freedom in the context of whether someone should be allowed to offer public prayer in a town council meeting. Around the world, the decision to exercise religious freedom can have far more life-altering consequences.

North Korea Punishes Missionary

Last week, the North Korean government sentenced South Korean Baptist missionary Kim Jung-wook to a life of hard labor, overtly as punishment for helping build secret churches within the borders of this atheist nation. It seems Kim has a record of helping North Koreans escape their oppressive homeland along the Chinese border. Last year, when a dozen women were discovered and taken forcibly back to North Korea, he scouted back into the country to release them. In October, he was captured.

To hear the charges against him, one might think he was an illegal South Korean spy set on stirring up discord and subverting the state’s leadership. North Korea officially sponsors a state church, but displays of any independent devotion instigate harsh penalties on grounds that religious fervor detracts from official state ideology. The underlying objection seems to be the state fears competition for the loyalty of its citizens, so it manufactures charges against those who attempt to bring aid and religious ideology to those citizens.

China Forces Pastor to Relocate and Demolishes Church

Christians, Muslims and Buddhists all face restrictions on their religious freedoms in China. In the 25 years since activists were gunned down in Tianenmen Square, few freedoms have been secured for the marginalized religious in China. Although 5 religions are officially recognized in China, including the Protestant faith, they all seem to face more pressure and auditing than those who conform to the state. Home based churches especially, while more difficult to regulate, seem to offer a target for the state. Home church pastor Shi Weihan was forced to abandon his efforts to print and distribute Bibles, and emigrated with his family after facing pressure to be quiet in preparation for the Beijing Olympics.

In a display of power that seems obnoxious to our western sensibilities, a church in Wenzhou province was bulldozed in April for being larger than permitted by local building codes. It was ostensibly used as an example to building code violations running amok throughout the region; but real questions remain about the true motivation of this act in light of other similar business buildings being granted emergency retroactive building permits.

Religious Freedom Under Attack

Kim Jung-wook knew the risks involved in his activities, but did so anyway because he believed enough in the urgency of his mission. He knows the basic human rights of North Koreans, including their religious rights, are being violated in a way the western world knows little about, due to the high level of control the ruling family exercises over the people. So he acted anyway, exercising his religious freedom despite a political atmosphere that attempts to squash it. Now he joins 100,000 other Christians in a labor camp in North Korea, and waits and prays for international action, or a power higher than Kim Jong-un to hear him and relieve the suffering of the oppressed.

Shi Weihan moved his family to Dallas, and now writes books and travels as a speaker to promote the need for awareness of Chinese suppression of true religious freedoms. He works with The George Bush Center for Awareness, attempting to document and effect change on the issues surrounding religious freedom.

Humanitarian action and protection of religious freedoms may or may not lie within the purview of governments, although it can be in their best interest to do so. Suppressed freedom creates a subculture of marginalized persons who may eventually rise up to overthrow the existing government. It also makes the international community uneasy to conduct business with the suppressive government. But more than at a political level, awareness can affect the path of an individual. As more people realize that religious freedom is, indeed, a fundamental human right, more are prompted to take action to free others from religious oppression. And that is a freedom everybody should be able to believe in.

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