First Russian Orthodox church to open in North Korea

Beijing, China - The first Russian Orthodox church will open in the North Korean capital Pyongyang next Sunday, foreign diplomats in the North said Tuesday, in an apparent attempt to show that the reclusive communist state tolerates religious freedom.

The opening ceremony of the Holy Trinity church will take place on August 13, the Russian embassy in Pyongyang said.

“We will invite our (North) Korean friends, diplomats in Pyongyang and members of international organizations,” said an official, who declined to be named.

A European diplomat, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said the church was “a kind of symbol which can be used as an argument that there is no problem with religion at all here.”

Construction started in 2003 when its grounds were blessed by Kliment Kapalin, Archbishop of Kaluga and Borovsk, according to an earlier report on the Vatican-based AsiaNews website.

The Russian embassy said the church would be open to all followers of Russian orthodoxy, irrespective of their nationalities.

“It is for all orthodox believers, it is open to everybody. If there are any orthodox (believers) in (North) Korea, they can come and participate,” the Russian official said.

She declined to speculate on why North Korean authorities have supported the establishment of such a church.

Pyongyang has two official Protestant churches and one Catholic cathedral, according to South Korean government information.

There are also hundreds of unofficial “home churches” which are under strict government surveillance.

North Korea approved its first official Roman Catholic church in October 1988 and its first official Protestant church, Bongsu, in November 1988. They serve as the center of Christian activity in the country.

But some regard these as showcase churches built for the benefit of foreigners since they do not offer any regular liturgical service, said AsiaNews in its earlier report.

Russian Orthodoxy has a long history in Korea, stretching back before the country was split into two political regimes in 1945.

According to AsiaNews, some 10,000 Koreans converted to Orthodoxy in the early 1900s as a result of Russian missionaries work.