Pope Francis has indicated that he may make an official visit to North Korea, one of the worst countries in the world for persecuting Christians, thousands of whom are incarcerated in labour camps.
An invitation from the closed state’s leader, Kim Jong-un, to the pope was relayed by the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, a Catholic, during a private audience at the Vatican on Thursday.
Moon “conveyed [Kim’s] desire for a papal visit to North Korea” with a formal invitation directly from Pyongyang to follow, said the South Korean presidential office.
According to the statement, Francis said that “if the invitation comes, I will surely respond to it, and I can possibly go”.
It would be North Korea’s first papal visit since it was founded in 1948.
Kim’s invitation follows a request earlier this week from two Chinese bishopsfor Francis to visit China, following an historic agreement between Beijing and the Vatican last month on the appointment of bishops in the communist state.
“We invited Pope Francis to come to China,” said Joseph Guo Jincai Guo, one of the two bishops who attended the Vatican synod. “We are waiting for him.”
The pope has already announced his intention to visit Japan next year, a trip that could be extended to take in highly symbolic visits to China and North Korea.
Kim is attempting to transform his image from an eccentric and dangerous leader of a pariah state to a player on the global diplomatic stage. He has met and corresponded with Donald Trump, leading the US president to declare last month that the two leaders had “fallen in love”.
During a summit between North and South Korea last month, Kim told Hyginus Kim Hee-joong, a South Korean archbishop, that he wanted the pope to know of his desire for peace.
North Korea this year topped a list of 50 countries ranked for the persecution of Christians for the 16th year in a row. The list, compiled by the Christian watchdog Open Doors, highlighted the imprisonment in labour camps of Christians and Christian missionaries in the state.
It said: “Due to constant indoctrination, neighbours and family members, including children, are highly watchful and report anything suspicious to the authorities. If Christians are discovered, they are deported to labour camps as political criminals or killed on the spot; their families share their fate.
“Meeting for worship is almost impossible, so is done in utmost secrecy. The churches shown to visitors in Pyongyang serve mere propaganda purposes.”
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom’s 2018 annual reportsaid: “The North Korean government’s approach toward religion and belief is among the most hostile and repressive in the world. Freedom of religion or belief does not exist in North Korea.
“The regime exerts absolute influence over the handful of state-controlled houses of worship permitted to exist, creating a facade of religious life in North Korea. In practice, the North Korean regime treats religion as a threat, particularly faiths associated with the West, such as Christianity, and is known to arrest, torture, imprison, and even execute religious believers.
According to Open Doors, there are an estimated 300,000 Christians in a population of 25.4 million, and 50-75,000 Christians in the country’s labour camps.
A Vatican statement about the meeting between the pope and Moon did not mention the possibility of a visit to North Korea.