Freedom of religion or belief is widely violated around the world, in various ways - through violent persecution or imprisonment of religious minorities, discriminatory or restrictive laws, or incitement to hatred. Authoritarian regimes, religious extremists and criminal gangs are among those who flagrantly abuse freedom of religion or belief. Yet despite the widespread nature of religious persecution, there are few countries in the world that totally deny freedom of thought, conscience and religion, a basic human right set out in its fullest form in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In most countries, churches, mosques and temples exist and can worship, even if severely restricted or threatened. The exceptions are Saudi Arabia, The Maldives, Eritrea and the world's most closed nation, North Korea.
This week Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) launches a new report, Total Denial: Violations of Freedom of Religion or Belief in North Korea, which details the regime's abuses and the ideology and propaganda used to deny freedom of religion or belief, a human right that is "largely non-existent" in the country. North Korean citizens are required to show utmost loyalty to the ruling Kim dynasty, and so religious beliefs are deemed to threaten that.
With the exception of four churches in Pyongyang - two Protestant, one Catholic and one Russian Orthodox - Christians in North Korea have to practise their faith in secret. If discovered worshipping or possessing a Bible, they are taken to one of the notorious prison camps and in some cases executed, or otherwise forced to endure dire conditions of slave labour and torture for many years.
I have visited the four churches in Pyongyang, and while one can never peer into the soul of the congregations, they are believed to be Potemkin-style 'show' churches' for the benefit of foreigners. There are reports of the worshippers being bussed into the churches every time foreigners are visiting.
Three key policies in North Korea lie at the heart of the regime's total denial of freedom of religion.
Firstly, the Ten Principles for the Establishment of the One-ideology System, a set of regulations introduced by Kim Jong-Il in 1974 and revised by the current Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un three years ago to consolidate his power and legitimise his succession. North Korean school children are taught the Ten Principles at school. One North Korean, when asked what was most memorable about Kim Il-Sung or Kim Jong-Il during his school days, replied: "I remember learning that he was sent from heaven, a leader of the people and a leader of the world." Citizens are required to evaluate themselves daily on whether they have been living up to the Ten Principles. Kim family portraits are hung in homes and displayed in public spaces, cleaned regularly and inspected by the authorities.
Secondly, North Korea has a system of social classification which determines everything, including access to education, health care and jobs. The songbun system divides the people into three classes - the 'core' or loyal class, the 'wavering' class and the 'hostile' class. This classification is determined at birth and reflects a person's family background. Anyone suspected of religious belief or with a history of religion in their family is classified as an enemy of the state and placed in the 'hostile' class.
Thirdly, the policy of 'guilt by association'. When a person commits a political crime, their children and grandchildren are punished with them. So even if a person is not religious, but has Christian relatives, they can be detained.
Christians are most targeted, because they are perceived by the regime to be following a foreign religion and are thus suspected of espionage. And the punishments can be extreme. Documented incidents include Christians being hung on a cross over a fire, crushed by a steamroller, herded off bridges and trampled underfoot. Buddhists, Shamanists and Cheondoists - followers of a native Korean religion - are more tolerated, perhaps because they are seen as a more indigenous belief system, although they also face discrimination and restrictions.
North Koreans who flee the country to China often encounter religion there for the first time, due to the significant number of Christian humanitarian workers involved in helping refugees. But if they become Christian, and are arrested by the Chinese authorities and forcibly repatriated to North Korea, they face a desperate fate - severe torture, and long years in a prison camp. Pressure needs to be increased on China to end its policy of forced repatriation, and use its influence with Pyongyang to bring about change. Today is Save North Koreans Day, when people around the world will deliver a letter to Chinese embassies calling on China to stop sending North Koreans back to their deaths.
Almost a decade ago, CSW published a very detailed report - North Korea: A Case to Answer, A Call to Act - which was among the first human rights reports to call for a United Nations inquiry into crimes against humanity in North Korea. The UN eventually established that very inquiry, chaired by the Australian judge Michael Kirby, and in 2014 they published a damning report, accusing the regime of crimes against humanity and calling for a case to be brought to the International Criminal Court. Justice Kirby has drawn comparisons with the Holocaust. The report noted that "there is almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion as well as the right to freedom of opinion, expression, information and association".
Our new report adds further evidence to that conclusion, but the question remains: when will the international community act to hold the regime to account for its crimes, and to promote freedom of religion or belief in the darkest and most closed corner of the globe?
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