By BosNewsLife Asia Service
SEOUL, KOREA (BosNewsLife)-- A five-day visit by Pope Francis to South Korea has highlighted the plight of persecuted Christians in the region, including two detained Americans and a South Korean, who have been held in neighboring North Korea for their Christian activities, activists said.
Americans Kenneth Bae and Jeffrey Fowle were both detained on separate occasions for what authorities view as hostile acts.
Bae, detained in November 2012 while leading a tour group, was allegedly carrying propaganda materials at the time of his arrest. The charges included plotting "Operation Jericho", an alleged plan, drawing its name from the biblical story about the city being conquered when its walls suddenly collapsed.
Christians say Korean-American Kenneth Bae's health has significantly deteriorated due to strenuous work in a labor camp, and that he has been moved to a hospital. "This is the third time in less than two years that Bae has been hospitalized," said the news service of advocacy and aid group Open Doors International, which has contacts with North Korean Christians.
Bae, a missionary and businessman, was officially sentenced in April to 15 years in a North Korean labor camp for "hostile acts to bring down its government."
BIBLE IN NIGHTCLUB
Jeffrey Fowle, aged 56, was detained in May of this year for violating his tourist status after leaving a Bible in a nightclub in the northern port city of Chongjin.
In June, South Korean missionary Kim Jeong-wook was sentenced to life in prison and hard labor after being found guilty of espionage and setting up an underground church.
They are among at least tens of thousands of Christians held in prison camps in the Communist, isolated nation, according to several sources.
The United Nations says between 80,000 and 120,000 prisoners are detained in political prison camps throughout North Korea, or 1 in every 200 citizens, but Christian groups have spoken of much higher numbers.
Open Doors International's 2014 World Watch List ranks North Korea first on its list of what it views as the top 50 countries where Christians are most severely persecuted for their faith. North Korea has held this position for 12 consecutive years.
Communist oppression under the rule of Kim Jong-Un and his Workers` Party is a primary force behind persecution in North Korea, the group said.
"The family's rule is absolute, and no one is allowed to challenge or question it." The dynasty has ruled North Korea for more than half a century.
North Korean police officials hunt down and vigorously persecute North Koreans who convert to Protestant Christianity while in China, or those who attempt to bring Christian literature, primarily Bibles, back with them to North Korea, Christians said.
Thousands of other believers risk their lives too as they meet secretly for worship.
"My father was allowed to receive visitors in our house," said North Korean refugee Hee Young, who used a pseudonym amid security concerns, in remarks distributed by Open Doors.
"Every Sunday, I would play outside with the other children, and my parents would have secret worship," he recalled. However, "one day I said 'goodbye' to my father, and left for school. When I returned that afternoon, he did not open the door. The house was a complete mess, my mother and grandmother were in tears, and my father's office was empty. He was gone, and I never saw him again."
POPE HIGHLIGHTS PERSECUTION
Hee Young said his family knew police would come back and therefore burned their Bibles. "Eventually we were banished and forced to do hard labor in an isolated village." Ten years later, Hee Young managed to escape to China, and eventually arrived in South Korea.
In his messages to often massive crowds, Pope Francis spoke during his August 14-18 trip in South Korea of a need for peace and dialogue between the two countries and highlighted persecution.
He led a ceremony to beatify 124 Korean martyrs, a rite that was seen as highlighting the special history of a church that has been referred to as the Asian tiger of Catholicism.
The martyrs were among about 10,000 Catholics who died for their faith in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The large number of martyrs distinguishes the Korean Catholic Church and makes it one of the most persecuted congregations in the history of Catholicism, church experts say.