North Korea Declines Invitation to Papal Mass in Seoul

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea has declined to send a delegation to a Mass that Pope Francis will preside over during a visit to Seoul this month, Roman Catholic officials in South Korea said Wednesday.

Francis is scheduled to visit South Korea from Aug. 14 to 18, in his first trip to Asia as pope. In May, Catholic leaders in South Korea invited North Korea’s government-run Korean Catholic Association to attend a Mass that the pope is scheduled to lead on Aug. 18 at Myeongdong Cathedral, seat of the Archdiocese of Seoul. The North Koreans recently declined the invitation, church officials said Wednesday.

North Korean defectors have said that no religious activities are allowed in the country, outside of a handful of churches and temples that they say are run by the government to create the impression that it allows religious freedom. The North has arrested or expelled foreign Christian missionaries on charges of using religion to undermine its political system. The United States State Department and international human rights groups list North Korea as one of the world’s worst violators of religious freedom.

Still, there are ties between the South Korean church and the North’s Catholic organization. North Korea opened a cathedral in Pyongyang, its capital, in 1988. Since 2008, the South Korean church’s Committee for the Reconciliation of the Korean People and the North’s Korean Catholic Association have held a joint annual Mass there.

Catholicism reached the Korean Peninsula about two centuries ago. Church leaders in the South believe there are still active Catholics in the North, quietly practicing their religion apart from the state-sanctioned churches.

It was unclear why the North Koreans rejected the church’s invitation. But the pope’s trip overlaps with a joint military drill that the United States and South Korea plan to conduct later this month. North Korea has previously cited such military exercises, which it characterizes as preparations for invasion, in canceling exchanges with the South.

Also Wednesday, the South Korean government approved church officials’ request to send a delegation to the North on Thursday to discuss holding another joint Mass this year. Church officials said they hoped to use that meeting to persuade the North Koreans to reconsider the decision not to attend the papal Mass.