It remains illegal to get a Bible in any form into North Korea from any neighboring country, yet more North Koreans may be reading the Bible today than at any other time in history. Those were the remarks of Pastor Eric Foley, CEO of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, at last week’s Taiwan International Religious Freedom Summit (TIRF). The event was attended by more than 200 NGO leaders and government officials, including Taiwan’s Vice President Lai Ching-Te, President of the Legislative Assembly You Si-Kun, former US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, and members of parliament from Japan, Europe, Nigeria, and South and Southeast Asia.
The event was the third-ever Taiwan International Religious Freedom Summit, organized by the International Religious Freedom Secretariat, the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan, and US NGO China Aid. It was the first time North Korean religious freedom was included in the agenda, with organizers selecting Pastor Foley to give the address. Pastor Foley was also asked to pray for persecuted believers at Taiwan’s National Prayer Breakfast, held concurrently.
Former Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback told attendees that those in the Grand Hotel in Taipei were some of the premier global leaders for religious freedom.
According to Voice of the Martyrs Korea Representative Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, who was also publicly welcomed at the event, Ambassador Brownback also expressed in personal remarks to Voice of the Martyrs Korea that he had recently visited Korea to promote the idea of Korea hosting its own International Religious Freedom Summit in coordination with the International Religious Freedom Secretariat. “The ambassador said that progress toward a Korean summit has so far been slow,” says Representative Foley. “He noted that the religious freedom summits exist for the purpose of bringing together the people in a country from all the different religions to jointly promote religious freedom, but that that kind of inter-faith cooperation generally takes time to develop in a country.”
Voice of the Martyrs Korea CEO Pastor Eric Foley and Representative Dr. Hyun Sook Foley are welcomed by attendees at the Taiwan International Religious Freedom Summit
Voice of the Martyrs Korea CEO Pastor Eric Foley addresses attendees at the Taiwan International Religious Freedom Summit
Pastor Eric Foley’s address at the event followed a panel discussion on trans-national repression of religious freedom, the growing trend of governments to cooperate across national borders to restrict freedom of religion or belief. Pastor Foley described the restriction of the religious freedom of North Koreans by North Korea and its neighbor countries as “Exhibit A” of the trend.
“In North Korea’s 2014 response to the United Nations Human Rights Council, it claimed that missionaries serving North Koreans in Northeast China were committing ‘terrorist acts’,” said Pastor Foley in his speech. “Then two years later a team of North Korean operatives killed our Voice of the Martyrs Korea team member and Korean Chinese citizen Pastor Han Chung Ryeol in Changbai, China for his gospel and humanitarian aid ministry to North Koreans who were going back and forth across the North Korea/Chinese border. The killers were never pursued or brought to justice. Today, even the smallest efforts by Chinese churches to meet the religious or humanitarian needs of North Koreans continue to be punished more and more harshly by the Chinese government as criminal offenses.”
In his speech, Pastor Foley noted that it remains illegal to get a Bible in any form into North Korea from any neighboring country. Still, he said that Voice of the Martyrs Korea continues to work with underground North Korean Christians to get Bibles into North Korea, with requests from North Koreans for Bibles doubling each year during the pandemic.
“The North Korean Human Rights Database, an independent data-gathering NGO, did a study where they found that in the year 2000, effectively 0% of people inside North Korea had ever seen a Bible with their own eyes,” said Pastor Foley in his speech. “They have continued to update that study, and at the end of 2020 they determined that around 8% of people inside of North Korea have now seen a Bible with their own eyes.”
Voice of the Martyrs Korea CEO Pastor Eric Foley leads prayer for persecuted Christians at the Taiwan National Prayer Breakfast, held concurrently with the Taiwan International Religious Freedom Summit
Voice of the Martyrs Korea CEO Pastor Eric Foley and Representative Dr. Hyun Sook Foley with Former US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback
Pastor Foley cautioned attendees that defenders of religious freedom often have too little understanding of how religion is practiced in a country. “By best estimates there are 100,000 Christians inside North Korea,” said Pastor Foley in his speech. “How do they express their faith? How do they live their Christian life? Defenders of religious freedom need to understand that North Korean Christians are not simply waiting around to be persecuted. They are living faithful Christian lives daily.”
Pastor Foley noted that the most common religious activity among North Korean Christians—listening to Christian programs on the radio—has not been mentioned in most international religious freedom reports. “When North Korean underground Christians were under lockdown in North Korea, they asked us to add radio broadcasts in the daytime,” said Foley. “We have been broadcasting three times every night, but at their request we added two broadcasts every daytime.” He added that the increased attempts by the North Korean government to jam Christian broadcasts should be noted as restrictions on religious freedom.
Pastor Foley prefaced his prayer for persecuted believers at the Taiwan National Prayer Breakfast by underscoring the importance of asking persecuted believers how they want to be prayed for. “We should not pray for them to become like us,” said Pastor Foley. “We should not pray for them the way we think they should be prayed for. Instead, we should ask them how they want us to pray.” He then led the attendees in praying for the ten specific prayers requested most often by persecuted Christians with which Voice of the Martyrs Korea partners.
Individuals interested in learning more about Voice of the Martyrs Korea’s North Korean ministry can visit https://vomkorea.com/en/northkorea.