Officials from China’s communist government have expelled dozens of South Korean Christian missionaries following a series of police raids on church groups.
According to a report Saturday from Asianews, in recent days authorities arrested four missionaries and deported at least 32 more as part of an ongoing crackdown against Christian evangelizing. The missionaries had been working in the northeast Yanji region of the country, providing assistance to fugitives fleeing North Korea.
Dozens of South Korean Christian missionaries had traveled to China in past months and along with preaching the Christian gospel, they sought to help defectors navigate the perilous journey across the Yalu River, which separates China and North Korea.
On Saturday, the South Korean government in Seoul confirmed reports that some Korean missionaries had been arrested in China. Some of the missionaries had been working in China for decades.
Although foreign missionary work is illegal in China, local authorities have often turned a blind eye to evangelizing efforts by South Korean missionaries, taking advantage of the free humanitarian service they provide as well as the substantial bribes paid in order to avoid prosecution.
In recent years, however, President Xi Jinping has tightened government control over religious activity in the country, often targeting Christians. Moreover, according to some analysts, these expulsions may be connected to increasing political tensions between Beijing and Seoul. South Korea is proceeding with the construction of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system in partnership with the U.S. military, against the threat of missile attacks from North Korea.
China has reportedly retaliated against South Korean products, and even banned performances and TV appearances of famous South Korean actors and singers.
Last month, Pope Francis publicly defended China’s practice of religious liberty, in what many observers considered an effort at appeasement in a bid to establish formal diplomatic ties with the country.
In a lengthy interview with the Spanish daily El País, Francis insisted that in China churches are full and religion is practiced freely, adding he would love to visit China “as soon as they invite me,” something he says he has made clear to Chinese authorities.
The pontiff said that the Vatican is engaged in ongoing dialogue with China and that a commission has been set up that meets every three months, with Beijing and the Vatican alternating as hosts of the encounter.
“In China the churches are full,” Francis insisted. “You can practice your faith in China.”
Religious freedom groups, on the other hand, have insisted that religious practice in China is anything but free.
In its most recent “Watch List” documenting Christian persecution throughout the world, the non-profit group Open Doors placed China among the worst offenders against religious freedom in the world.
“As Christians are the largest social force in China not controlled by the Communist Party,” Open Doors noted in its 2017 report, “there are increasing efforts to bring them under state control.”
According to reports in South Korean media, there are probably more than a thousand Korean Christian missionaries working in China at present. Most are working in the northeast, and many help defectors flee North Korea and travel to third countries.
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