Catholic South Korean delegation visits communist north for first time

.- The Archdiocese of Seoul sent its first-ever official Catholic delegation to North Korea Wednesday; this is the first time its members have been allowed to cross the border into the communist north. The group left for its three-day trip on April 26.

The 61-member delegation, made up of lay people and clergy, will inspect how the more than $10 million it has sent to North Korea for humanitarian aid has been used.

The delegation is being led by Mgr. Thomas Aquinas Choi Chang-hwa, director of the National Reconciliation Committee, established in 1995 to “deliver God’s love to our North Korean brethren.”

Many sources have said the visit has “raised hopes about an agreement allowing more religious freedom in the country”, ruled by a Stalinist regime and held by many to be an “an open air gulag.”

The delegation is scheduled to inspect conditions in health facilities it funded and to visit a food factory and a grain mill built with aid from Changchung – the only Catholic church in Pyongyang.

The visit comes after Pope Benedict recently 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.

The cardinal 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 allowed in the country.

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.

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