NORTH KOREA: Hoped-For Orthodox Church 'Will Be for Russians'.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 17 October 2002

A Russian Orthodox priest who has just completed his first visit to the North Korean capital Pyongyang has told Keston News Service that the proposed new Orthodox church now "under discussion" with the North Korean authorities will primarily be for locally-based Russian citizens. "We are mainly concerned about our compatriots," Fr Dionisy Pozdnyayev told Keston from Moscow on 17 October, "but if any North Koreans wish to attend of course we would be ready for them." Fr Dionisy reported that Jang Jae On, the chairman of the government-approved Council of Korean Religionists which had invited him to the country, had told him "officially" that it was the government's intention to allow a Russian Orthodox church to be built in the capital. "No agreement has yet been reached - that will be worked out in further discussions."

Fr Dionisy - who works in the Moscow Patriarchate's secretariat for inter-Orthodox relations - said that a planned visit to Moscow by Jang Jae On will allow further discussions to take place. "No date has yet been set for the visit, but I expect it to take place this year when a list of participants is submitted." Fr Dionisy declared that it was "premature" to talk about how priests would be provided for the proposed Pyongyang church and whether the North Korean authorities would be prepared to accept a priest sent from Russia.

North Korea severely restricts religious activity, although there are four officially-approved religious organisations, one each for Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants and followers of Chundo Kyo (a faith which combines elements of Christianity and Buddhism). Some commentators believe the religious organisations are paper bodies run by people with little knowledge of the faiths they purport to represent and hold few public religious events. However, Fr Dionisy said he "had not been able to establish" if such claims were true or not. He also said he had not discussed religious freedom with Jang Jae On. "He didn't raise it and nor did I. We had enough to discuss about the practical aspects of Orthodox plans."

Fr Dionisy told Keston that during his visit - which lasted from 1 to 8 October - he visited one Buddhist temple, one Catholic and one Protestant church. He said he spoke to representatives in each place of worship but did not attend any of their services. "The programme had already been planned and there was no time to attend services in these places of worship." He met the pastor of the Protestant church, who presented him with a Korean-language copy of the Bible published in Pyongyang. "He told me this had recently been produced in 20,000 copies," Fr Dionisy told Keston. Jang Jae On - who is also chairman of the Central Committee of the Korean Roman Catholic Association - represented the Catholics when he visited their church.

While in Pyongyang Fr Dionisy had no meetings with government officials. "The government has no office dealing with religion." However, he was accompanied at his meetings by Russian diplomats.

Fr Dionisy said he had held two religious services - a moleben (special service) in the Russian embassy on 6 October and a panikhida (service for the dead) on 3 October at a cemetery containing the remains of Russian soldiers. Also speaking at the cemetery was the Russian ambassador to North Korea, Andrei Karlov. "There was no discussion of the presence of North Korean citizens at these services." Fr Dionisy said the services had not been announced or reported in the local media. "Jang Jae On told me there were no North Korean citizens who are Orthodox," Fr Dionisy reported, "but I suspect there could still be descendants of those who became Orthodox as a result of the Russian Orthodox mission in Korea opened a century ago." There are reported to be 130 Russian citizens living in Pyongyang.

The potential building of a Russian Orthodox church in Pyongyang follows the warming of relations between the North Korean and Russian leaders. Russian President Vladimir Putin visited North Korea in July 2000, while North Korean leader Kim Jong Il visited Russia in August 2001. During a visit to the Russian Far East in August of this year, Kim Jong Il visited St Innocent Orthodox church in Khabarovsk, where he spoke for nearly an hour with the parish priest about the Orthodox Church and the religious situation in Russia. (END)