Pope Francis received an invitation Thursday from Kim Jong Un to visit North Korea, and said he would consider the invitation, according to a South Korean spokesman.
The offer was conveyed verbally by South Korean President Moon Jae-in during his visit to the Vatican, the spokesman said.
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The invitation comes at a time when the North Korean leader is on a diplomatic outreach campaign, holding several summits in recent months with the leaders of South Korea and of China, and meeting with US President Donald Trump.
The Vatican declined to comment on whether the Pope would accept, but no pope has ever visited North Korea. North Korea's proposal could come under scrutiny because of the country's track record on religious tolerance.
"North Korea is the worst oppressor of religion," said Michael Green, a former National Security Council official now with the Center for Strategic & International Studies. "To physically travel to North Korea and meet with Kim, I fear, would legitimize a leader who is the greatest enemy to religious freedom on the face of the Earth."
According to the latest report from the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, "The North Korean government's approach toward religion and belief is among the most hostile and repressive in the world ... known to arrest, torture, imprison, and even execute religious believers."
The advocacy group Open Doors USA claims that as many as 50,000 Christians are held in prison camps, hard labor camps, re-education camps, and detention centers.
A number of visiting Westerners in recent years have also been caught up in North Korean rules against religious activity:
Jeffrey Edward Fowle of Ohio was held for five months, accused of purposely leaving a Bible behind at a club for foreign sailors.
Canadian Pastor Hyeon Soo Lim was jailed for 2½ years, including hard labor, after he was found guilty of trying to use religion to overthrow the North Korean regime.
And Christian missionary Kenneth Bae of Seattle was imprisoned for two years on allegations he plotted to bring down the government through religious activities. After his release, he told CNN he was sent to a hard labor camp where he was taunted by his guards. "I had to work from 8 in the morning until 6 at night, six days a week," he said. "We were working on the field, doing farming labor, carrying rock and shoveling coal."
North Korea contains some state-controlled churches, but the regime forbids independent religious activities, viewing them as potential threats to its authority.
"It's a threat to the regime," said Green. "They don't want anything to take away from the divinity which, they have taught the North Korean people for 60 years, resides in the Kim family, and only the Kim family."
Green believes Kim Jong Un has other motives for his invitation: winning good publicity, boosting his standing as a statesman and weakening international resolve for UN sanctions over North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
But Greg Scarlatoiu of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea said the Pope could still find a way to go and have a positive impact, if he uses the trip not only to bring a message of peace, but also to highlight North Korea's human rights record.
"The Pope, if he decides to visit North Korea, must express grave concern over the oppression of Christians, and other people of religion," Scarlatoiu said.
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