A day after authorities announced the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, several Christian organizations are calling for prayers for the nation's persecuted Christians, one of many so-called dissident groups that have suffered under the North Korean regime.
While Christianity has experienced immense growth throughout South Korea and other Asian countries, human rights groups estimate that there are 50,000 to 70,000 Christian prisoners in North Korea, which has routinely made the U.S. State Department's list of "countries of particular concern" when it comes to religious freedom.
"Though this brutal dictator, who was responsible for so many atrocities, has died, the future is still unknown. Some speculate that his son Kim Jong Un will be just as cruel to all dissenters. Others suggest that he may be more lenient. We simply do not know," said Carl Moeller, President an CEO of Open Doors USA, which monitors the persecution of Christians in dozens of nations.
"This is why it is vital that Christians around the world pray for North Korea during this transitional time. Pray especially for the brave Christians inside North Korea. They are fearful that they might face even more suffering," he said.
Because of the country's political and cultural isolation and government-controlled media, statistics on its religious breakdown vary. Self-reporting from the North Korean government to a United Nations Human Rights Commission in 2002 said there were 12,000 Protestants, 10,000 Buddhists, and 800 Catholics in the nation of 24 million people. South Korean and international organizations have made much higher estimates. A report on global Christianity that the Pew Forum released Monday estimates that there are 480,000 Christians in North Korea.
North Korean Christians are routinely arrested for practicing their religion, according to human rights organizations. Other more traditional religions, such as Buddhism and Shamanism, are slightly more tolerated in the country, although experts say they are often treated more as cultural relics than as religions. Although religious freedom is written into the nation's constitution, a 2010 report from the U.S. State Department maintains that, in practice, "genuine religious freedom does not exist."
For eight years, North Korea has held the top spot on Open Doors' list of nations with the worst treatment of Christians. Total estimates of those imprisoned for religious and other reasons put North Korean political prisoners at 150,000 to 200,000, according to the U.S. State Department.
More common than religion is the cult of personality around the nation's founder, "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung, and his son and now late "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il. The North Korean idea of "juche," or self-reliance, is a popular motivating force that is taught in schools.
In a press release, Open Doors, which keeps discreet contact with Christians in the nation, quoted a source named "Simon" who said that religious persecution is getting worse, not better.
"Since Kim Jong Un came closer to the helm, North Korea has stepped up its attempts to uncover any religious activities. There have been more house raids, more spies trained to infiltrate religious and human rights networks and one South Korean Christian who was murdered in China because he helped refugees," said Simon.
Other religious organizations, such as the World Evangelical Alliance, are more optimistic about the current situation.
"Many South Korean Christians have earnestly prayed for peace and Korean reunification for decades. May this new era see the beginnings of some answers to their prayers," said a press release from the organization.
Mervyn Thomas, chief executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, took a similar view Monday.
"There is now a real opportunity for North Korea to change direction, end its isolation, stop the brutal oppression of its own people and open up to the world," he said in a statement. Thomas said the group urges North Korea "to introduce fundamental changes and close the prison camps, end torture, slave labour and summary executions, respect religious freedom and release all prisoners of conscience."