N. Korea Russian Orthodox Church opens

Seoul, South Korea - North Korea's first ever Russian Orthodox church conducted its inaugural mass Sunday, the North's official news agency said, although there was no sign the hardline communist regime has eased its tight controls on religion.

Vice Premier Kwak Pom Gi and other government officials attended the service at the Trinity Church in Pyongyang, the Korean Central News Agency reported.

The North Korean government will "successfully manage and operate the church," said Ho Il Jin, the chairman of the Korean Orthodox Church Committee, KCNA reported. He did not elaborate, but added the inauguration of the church will boost relations between North Korea and Russia.

In theory, North Koreans enjoy the freedom of religion, according to their constitution.

But in practice that right is severely restricted. Last year, the U.S. State Department pinpointed North Korea as one of a number of nations whose citizens cannot freely practice their religions, and North Koreans defectors to the South have said some are persecuted for their beliefs.

The head of the Russian Orthodox Church's foreign relations, Metropolitan Kirill, who also attended mass Sunday, nevertheless praised North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il for his "initiative and deep care" in building the church on the bank of the Taedong River.

North Korea's late founder Kim Il Sung and his son, Kim Jong Il, are revered as demigods and enjoy a massive personality cult.

In addition to the new Russian Orthodox church, Pyongyang has also one Catholic and two Protestant churches, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.