South Korean rights activists shout slogans outside the Chinese embassy in Seoul during a rally demanding that Beijing scrap plans to repatriate arrested refugees from North Korea. (Photo by Jung Yeon-je/AFP)
A French Catholic priest working with North Korean refugees in China said conditions have worsened for surviving Christians under the dictatorship of Kim Jong-un and urged the Chinese government to give shelter to fugitives from the communist-ruled country.
Fr. Philippe Blot, who works with the Paris Foreign Mission Society, described the situation facing North Korean refugees as "becoming ever more dramatic" as they flee to China to avoid dying of hunger, the National Catholic Reporter said.
"The 200,000 North Koreans now in China shouldn't be forcibly repatriated," he said in an interview with France's Le Monde daily March 30. "They all know they'll be tortured, sent to camps and killed if this happens."
The priest said he had been asked for help from refugees while ministering in South Korea's Andong and Suwon dioceses, and had gone to China in 2010 to help establish a reception network.
"When a North Korean flees, his family [is] considered traitors and sent to re-education camps. So we first have to verify whether they've been seized before trying to help via our North Korean contacts," Blot said.
"But those in China are still in an illegal, dangerous situation," he said.
Services are permitted at one officially approved Catholic church in Pyongyang, as well as at two Protestant churches and an Orthodox church.
The country was home to about 100,000 Catholics and up to 200,000 Protestants before the communist takeover. Human rights organizations estimate that at least 30,000 Christians are incarcerated in prisons and labor camps.
Churches that remain open are "just facades" for a "sham religious liberty," he said.