North Korea tops list of about 20 countries around the world that systematically deprives believers and atheists of their freedom
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North Korea tops list of about 20 countries around the world that systematically deprives believers and atheists of their freedom

According to a damning new report, North Korea has one of the world’s worst records for imprisoning people for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief. It says that North Korea, which last week incurred the wrath of the international community after setting off a hydrogen bomb, is a “black spot” for such infringements.

The report says that “countless numbers of persons” in North Korea who attempt to practice their religious beliefs have been “severely punished, even unto death.”

The findings will inevitably add to the pressure being applied to Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, in the wake of the nuclear test.

The rights violations in North Korea and other countries are outlined in the new annual prisoners’ list, “Behind Bars for their Faith in 20 Countries”, compiled by Human Rights Without Frontiers, a leading Brussels-based NGO.

HRWF Int’l is one of the most active NGOs promoting human rights at the European Parliament and in other EU institutions. HRWF is also very active at the UN in Geneva, at the OSCE in Warsaw and Vienna.

An independent NGO, it promotes norm implementation by pressuring target actors to adopt better policies and by monitoring compliance with international standards.

The new list has 1,500 names of believers of 15 religious denominations, including atheists, who were imprisoned for activities protected the European Convention of Human Rights.

This grants freedom to change religion or belief, freedom to share one’s religion or beliefs, freedom of association, freedom of worship and assembly, or conscientious objection to military service.

Some 20 countries in all were identified by HRWF for depriving believers and atheists of their freedom in 2015.

They include Azerbaijan, Bhutan, Egypt, Eritrea and Indonesia.

“In Iran, seven denominations are victims of harsh repression. The Bahai’s, whose movement is considered a heresy of Islam, provide the highest number of prisoners. 

“They are followed by the Sufis, the Sunnis, as well as home-grown Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians who extensively carry out missionary activities among their fellow citizens despite the risk of imprisonment, torture and execution. Shia dissidents, members of Erfan-e-Halghe and Zoroastrians are also repressed by the theocratic regime of Tehran.” In China, five religious denominations are particularly persecuted, says the report. “Uyghur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists, systematically suspected of separatism and/or terrorism, are also particular targets of the regime.

The report goes on, “It is worth mentioning that North Korea remains a black spot on the map of religious persecution as access to information about North Korean prisoners of conscience is impossible.”

It adds, “What is known however is that in 2015 four foreign Christians (one Canadian and three South Korean pastors) were serving a prison term for attempting to carry out missionary activities in North Korea. Hyeon Soo Lim from Toronto was sentenced to life imprisonment in December 2015 and Kim Jeong-Wook to hard labour for life.

HRWF director Willy Fautre said, “These cases are only the tip of the tip of the iceberg but North Korean Christians belonging to underground house churches are also regularly arrested.”

According to the 400-page report of the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) into Human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK), “Countless numbers of persons in North Korea who attempt to practice their religious beliefs have been severely punished, even unto death.”

HRWF has also identified 15 religious denominations that are victims of state repression. 

In 2015, 555 Jehovah’s Witnesses were in prison in South Korea for refusing to perform military service and there were 54 more in Eritrea.

Evangelical and Pentecostal Protestants were behind bars in at least 12 countries: Bhutan, China, Eritrea, Indonesia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Laos, North Korea, Russia, Sudan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. Sunni Muslims belonging to various sects, in particular Tablighi Jamaat and Said Nursi followers, are also serving long terms.

HRWF has been monitoring freedom of religion or belief as a non-religious organization for 25 years. In 2015 it covered in its daily newsletter over 60 countries where there were incidents related to freedom of religion or belief, intolerance and discrimination.

The Brussels-based Fautre added, “The purpose of our data collection project about faith or belief prisoners is to put an instrument at the disposal of the EU institutions for their advocacy in favour of freedom of religion or belief in the world as requested by the 2013 EU guidelines.

“Our best wish for 2016 is that the EU and its member states, as well as the international community in general, extensively use our Prisoners’ List 2015 to obtain the early release of the prisoners of conscience identified and documented by our NGO.”

By Martin Banks