April 26, 2006

S.Korea Catholic delegation visits communist North

SEOUL (Reuters) - A group of South Korean Roman Catholics
left for North Korea on Wednesday, a Church official said, the
first such official delegation to visit a country Washington
has criticized for suppressing religion.

The visit comes after Pope Benedict installed a second
cardinal for South Korea earlier this year. Cardinal Nicholas
Cheong Jin-suk is interested in rebuilding the Church in the
communist country and having a priest installed there.

Cheong also heads the Roman Catholic diocese in the capital
of North Korea, although it is mostly a symbolic title since
there are no practicing Catholic priests in the country.

He has not visited the North but Church officials in Seoul
said he was preparing events to mark the 80th anniversary of
the Pyongyang diocese in 2007.

The 61-member delegation from the Archdiocese of Seoul will
inspect how the more than $10 million it has sent to North
Korea for humanitarian aid has been used.

The South Korean delegation will stay in North Korea until
Saturday and is being led by the director of the archdiocese's
Reconciliation Committee, spokeswoman Ahn Sun-young said by

Some human rights groups in South Korea have urged the
Pontiff, a German, to visit the North and deliver a message
about uniting East and West Germany. The two Koreas have been
divided for more than 60 years.

South Korea estimates there are about 3,000 Catholics in
North Korea and about 12,000 Protestants, while in the South
there are about 4.5 million Catholics.

The State Department last year placed the North alongside
China and Myanmar on a list of countries that "regard some or
all religious groups as enemies of the state."

Refugees from the secretive state have told human rights
groups that some people who tried to practice their religion
were thrown into prison camps along with their families then
tortured and, in some cases, executed.