A pastor who has worked to build underground churches in the “North Korea in Africa” told South Korean Christians that they must build relationships with North Korean defectors in South Korea and make them feel welcome.
Pastor Berhane Asmelash of Eritrea used to operate a church composed of Eritreans and Ethiopians, two ethnic groups long in conflict: Eritrea declared independence from Ethiopia in 1993, and the two countries waged war from 1998-2000.
Eritrea has been widely criticized for its arbitrary arrests and detentions, and systematic use of torture. It is the only country to consistently rank lower than North Korea in Reporters without Borders’ annual press freedom index, and refugees have been fleeing the country due to its dictatorship.
Many Ethiopians still in Eritrea are soldiers who are hated by Eritreans. The two countries have deep-rooted ethnic and religious divisions, and the pastor drew a comparison between this ideological separation and that shared by the two Koreas since the Korean War.
“(At the church in Eritrea) I preached in Ethiopian since all Eritreans could understand the Ethiopian language,” said Berhane on Friday at a press conference for Voice of the Martyrs. “I started inviting Ethiopians to my house. I knew that they were lonely in a foreign country, so I tried to make them feel welcomed.”
He suggested South Korean churches invite more North Korean believers and even offer services in the North Korean dialect.
Pastor Eric Foley, CEO of Voice of the Martyrs in Seoul said Berhane’s experience with social integration would help North Korean defectors in South Korea, where they are socially isolated.
Some South Korean megachurches give $100-200 to defectors to attract them to their services, but Foley said such outreach is “not effective” and will require “significant changes.”
“Giving money is too easy. Instead of giving money, we should become like them, learn their dialect, open our homes and visit their homes so that they can host us,” Foley said.
“Here in South Korea, the rate of death due to suicide of North Korean defectors is 16.3 percent. That’s the highest rate in any population group in the world today,” Foley said in his opening remarks at the event. “That means the most dangerous place for North Koreans to be is right here, in Seoul.”
Both pastors emphasized exchanging mutual help between South and North Koreans.
“North Koreans can teach South Koreans the way of family worship that they used to do in North Korea,” Berhane said, asserting that ministry is “not only giving but also receiving.”
Eritrea is not only called the “North Korea of Africa,” but its government has imitated the North Korean system of power succession among family members, Berhane said. There have been no democratic elections since independence was declared in 1993 and its constitution has never been implemented.
North Korean high-ranking official Kim Yong Nam recently sent a greeting to the president of Eritrea, Lsaias Afwerki, during his visit to Equatorial Guinea.
Featured Image: Ha-young Choi
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