Pope Francis Visit To South Korea Prompts Plea For North Korean Catholics To Be Allowed To Attend

Seoul, South Korea — The South Korean Catholic church has renewed a request for North Korea to send about 10 Catholics to a mass to be celebrated by Pope Francis during his August visit to Seoul, a spokesman said Tuesday.

The Aug. 14-18 trip will be the first visit by a pope to the Korean Peninsula in 25 years. During the visit, he is to participate in a Catholic youth festival, preside over a beatification ceremony for 124 Korean martyrs and bring a message of peace to the war-divided peninsula, according to Catholic officials.

South Korean Catholic officials first asked North Korea to send Catholic believers to Seoul for the pope's visit about six months ago and later repeated the request as the North hasn't responded, according to the Archdiocese of Seoul. Spokesman Father Hur Young-yup said the North is expected to respond by early August.

North Korea's constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but in practice only sanctioned services are tolerated by the government. Defectors from the country have said that the distribution of Bibles and secret prayer services can mean banishment to a labor camp or execution.

Hur said there were about 50,000 Catholics in North Korea before the 1950-53 Korean War. He said North Korean Catholics' visit to Seoul would be symbolically significant but he said they may not be allowed to come.

The Korean Peninsula remains divided along the world's heavily fortified border following the war that ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. North Korea has recently proposed a set of steps it says would reduce tension but it has also been conducting a barrage of missile and artillery tests that Seoul calls a provocation.