SEOUL, South Korea (ChurchMilitant.com) - In a surprising move, the government of North Korea has agreed to allow South Korean Catholic priests to cross the border to celebrate Mass.
The Catholic Church in South Korea announced Monday that an agreement had been struck with the neighboring country to permit priests to offer Mass on "a regular basis" in the Changchung cathedral in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang.
The announcement comes at the conclusion of a four-day visit to North Korea by the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Korea (CBCK). The visiting party, consisting of four bishops and 13 priests, had been invited by the Korean Catholic Association (KCA), a government-run organization with no affiliation to the Vatican.
"[C]hannels of dialogue have been opened to improve religious exchanges between the two sides of the border in the coming years," announced a spokesman for the South Korean Bishops' Conference in a press conference this morning.
The meeting has "laid the groundwork for increased cooperation and exchanges between the Catholics of Korea."
The first visit has been scheduled for Easter in March 2016, the success of which will determine the frequency of future Masses to be held in the cathedral, most of which are scheduled for holy days throughout the year.
Although religious freedom is adorned within the North Korean Constitution, all religious activity within the country is subjected to intense state scrutiny and banned outside of state-approved establishments. The faithful face severe penalties — including execution — if accused of exhibiting religious behavior.
The Changchung cathedral is the only Catholic church in North Korea, and experts believe it simply serves as a red herring for tourists, as no confessions, baptisms or other sacraments ever occur within the church. There are currently no Catholic priests, Protestant pastors or Buddhist monks in the entire country. Two unused Protestant churches are also located in the North Korean capital.
According to the Catholic Association of North Korea, 3,000 registered Catholics live in the country. Sources believe, however, that the actual number is less than 800, most of whom are elderly and had been baptized before the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950.
Although the North Korean government permits Catholic organizations to operate aid projects within its borders, Pyongyang, whose early 20th-century thriving Christian community earned the name "Jerusalem of the East," has no formal relations with the Vatican.
During a visit to South Korea last year, Pope Francis offered Mass for the intention of the reunification of the two countries, stating that all Koreans "are brothers and sisters, members of one family, one people."