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Crackdown targets refugee escape routes

Church thrives on border despite refugee problems

The main Catholic church in Yanji The main Catholic church in Yanji
  • Steve Finch, Yanji
  • China
  • October 24, 2012
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The Sunday morning service in Ping’an village Church in Jilin province feels like a Korean karaoke session. Flat-screen televisions show the words to catchy Korean religious songs as five young men and women sing and sway in front of a congregation of about 40 people.

A few kilometers away in downtown Yanji, the capital of this autonomous Korean prefecture of Yanbian, more than 100 people sing hymns in Chinese and take Holy Communion in the city’s largest Catholic church.

Considered among the most vibrant Christian communities in the country with its large ethnic Korean population, on the surface religion appears to be flourishing in this remote corner of northeastern China on the border with North Korea.

But a five-month campaign ending last week has seen immigration officials “root out activities by foreign NGOs or religious activists” which help escaping North Koreans, according to the state-run China Daily.

Police have stepped up raids on safe houses, farms, karaoke parlors and other places where illegal migrants typically work. Meanwhile, a Chinese man is on the run after security authorities discovered he was helping North Koreans, according to Texas-based rights group China Aid.

Although these crackdowns in Yanbian are nothing new, they are “repeated and continuous and are becoming more severe,” says Pastor Chun Ki-won, founder of Seoul-based Durihana, a non-denominational evangelical group which helps fleeing North Koreans in Yanbian.

This recent campaign by Chinese police has severely restricted the movement and activities of missionaries working for Durihana, he adds.

Pastor Chun says that if illegal North Koreans are found in one of the many churches in Yanbian, they will lose their license and face forced closure.

“As a result, the Church [Christianity] cannot maintain its calling for helping those in need,” he says.

About 10,000 to 15,000 illegal migrants from the North are believed to be hiding in Yanbian.

The local population of 2.5 million people is roughly 40 percent ethnic Korean, many of whom migrated here in the 19th and 20th centuries to escape a series of wars and invasions in Korea.

The reasons behind the recent crackdown are unclear. Chinese authorities cited a case in which a North Korean burglar stabbed a policeman in March.

But Bob Fu, president of China Aid, says Kim Jong-un’s succession in North Korea in December following the death of his father and the expected announcement of China’s new leaders next month are the main reasons behind recent stricter measures in Yanbian.

“The latest crackdown is no surprise given the tense political situation in both North Korea and China,” said Fu, who helped blind activist Chen Guangcheng escape house arrest and reach the US embassy in Beijing in April.

Wikileaks cables sent from the US consulate in Shenyang in neighboring Liaoning province suggest the last time authorities initiated a major crackdown on North Koreans and religious groups in Yanbian was in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Apart from sensitive times like these, Christianity is remarkably free in Yanbian, says Fu. Churches face “fewer restrictions than Han Chinese churches,” he says, and there is even a university in Yanji which is openly managed by Christian missionaries.

Outside Yanji’s main Catholic church after a recent Sunday Mass, a South Korean missionary who declined to give his name said religious freedom in Yanbian is fleeting and contradictory.

Although he can stay in Yanji as a missionary, his various social projects have to be labeled anything but religious, and while authorities go to great lengths to limit foreign influence here, Koreans are freer to practice religion than Han Chinese elsewhere.

“Yanbian is far from Beijing,” says the missionary. “That makes a difference.”
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