The May 4th article in the official Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) News Service is entitled “Stairway to Heaven.” It tells of a visit by a high-level PCUSA delegation to a “house church” in North Korea. The “stairway” in question is the four flights of steps up which the PCUSA officials had to climb to reach the Pyongyang apartment where the house church worshiped.
“Heaven” is the feeling experienced by the visiting delegation, including top executive Linda Valentine. “This small upper room immediately feels like God’s house … and a family reunion,” said Jerry Van Marter, author of the article and director of the PCUSA News Service.
Van Marter’s rapturous report would be a huge journalistic coup if this were indeed a “house church” in the usual sense—an unofficial, clandestine gathering of Christians inside the world’s most repressive state. But it was no such thing. This Pyongyang “house church” visited by the U.S. church delegation is affiliated with the Korean Christian Federation (KCF), controlled by North Korea’s communist government. The KCF is “the partner church of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in this extremely isolated country,” Van Marter stated.
“Extremely isolated” is, to say the least, a very restrained description of the awful situation inside North Korea. But it’s the strongest language that the PCUSA News Service can muster. The rest of the article paints with bright hues. There are precisely “ten North Korean Christians gathered here for worship” in the Pyongyang apartment. They are polite and friendly, greeting the PCUSA officials “like some close relatives were coming.”
Each worshiper is provided with identical accessories: a straw mat, a Bible, and a soft-cover hymnal. “The time together slips easily and quickly into worship,” Van Marter writes, “with periods of prayer, the singing of at least three hymns—accompanied by the piano and an accordion—an offering, and lengthy readings from the Bible. The service concludes with the Lord’s Prayer.” Just the same way Presbyterians do it in Wichita, Kansas, or Charlotte, N.C.
The sermon, however, does seem rather political. A recently retired PCUSA mission coordinator preaches on “the inevitable reunification of North and South Korea”—coincidentally, a frequent theme in North Korean government propaganda. The house church leader responds in kind: “The PC(USA) is very well-known to Christian believers in Korea and is well-loved for your support of peaceful reunification.”
Parting is such sweet sorrow for North Korean hosts and U.S. guests alike: “Tears of joy at newfound Christian fellowship mix with tears of regret that our time together is so short. One thing is certain: God is in this place.”
There is not a raised eyebrow, not a single skeptical word in the entire PCUSA News article. The “house church” is taken at full face value. Figures provided by the government-controlled KCF are conveyed with complete credulity. “This ‘house church’ is one of 500 scattered throughout North Korea,” Van Marter informs readers. “House churches are now the life blood of the KCF, which claims about 15,000 members in the country.”
These round numbers look even stranger when one realizes that they have not changed much over North Korea’s history. A 2005 KCF report indicates that “[t]here are more than 10,000 Protestants and about 5,000 Catholics in our country,” with two Protestant churches and “500 other tabernacles.” In 1988, the Institute on Religion and Democracy reported that the KCF “has claimed to consist of some 10,000 Protestants in 500 house churches,” with 2,000 Catholics besides.
What are the chances that the North Korean Protestant population has remained stable at exactly 10,000 in precisely 500 house churches? The thought does not occur to the PCUSA News reporter. Nor does he betray any doubts when told by the KCF that, of some 14,000 Christian churches in North Korea in 1945, “all were destroyed in the Korean War.” Apparently, the U.S. Air Force in the 1950s had extremely advanced church-seeking missiles that eliminated all houses of worship, even in the smallest hamlets. The possibility that the late Kim Il Sung’s communist dictatorship might have shut down those churches is not raised.
Reputable human rights monitors paint a very different picture of religion in North Korea. “The government controls most aspects of daily life, including religious activity, which is allowed only in government-operated religious ‘federations’ or a small number of government-approved ‘house churches,’” according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. “Other public and private religious activity is prohibited. Anyone discovered engaging in clandestine religious activity is subject to discrimination, arrest, arbitrary detention, disappearance, torture, and public execution. A large number of religious believers are incarcerated in kwan-li-so [penal labor camps].”
The U.S. commission states that, although religious federations like the KCF may contain some sincere Christian believers, they “are led by political operatives whose goals are to substantiate the government’s policy of control over religious activity.” Worship services under the federations “are heavily monitored and the sites exist primarily as showpieces for foreign visitors.”
Nevertheless, credulous foreign visitors have often been taken in by the show. When Billy Graham visited in 1992, he praised Pyongyang as “one of the most beautiful modern cities I have ever had the privilege to visit.” In a glossy trip report, Graham described his meeting with the dictator Kim Il Sung as the “highlight” of his visit. “President Kim is highly revered by the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” according to Graham’s report, “and is often referred to as ‘The Great Leader’ by the nation’s citizens.” Graham’s report, like the recent PCUSA News report, made no mention of any religious persecution or human rights abuses in North Korea.
Some had hoped that, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet bloc, Western church delegations would learn to be less trusting of dictators’ propaganda about supposed religious freedom. National Council of Churches General Secretary Joan Brown Campbell confessed in 1993: “We did not understand the depth of the suffering of Christians under communism. We failed to … cry out under the communist oppression.”
Unfortunately, it appears that the lesson has not been fully learned. There are still those who fail to cry out—who, as the biblical prophet Jeremiah once remarked, cry “’Peace, peace,” when there is no peace.”