In spite of hopes to the contrary, North Korean Catholics will not be present at Pope Francis' Mass in the South Korean capital of Seoul on the last day of his visit.
Though it was believed that a group of North Korean Catholics would go across the border to attend the Mass, the invitation was denied by the North Korean government, according to Rome Reports Wednesday.
Marking his third international pilgrimage and his first trip to Asia as Pope, the Holy Father's visit will take place from Aug. 14-18.
On Aug. 18, Pope Francis will celebrate a Mass of Reconciliation in the Myeongdong Cathedral, the Roman Catholic Cathedral Church of the Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception and seat of the Archdiocese of Seoul.
According to Church officials, the North Korean government declined to send a delegation to the Mass after South Korea's Catholic leaders in May had invited North Korea's government-run Korean Catholic Association to attend the Pope-led Mass.
Adding to this, the day of the Mass coincides with annual joint South Korean-US military drills, which North Korea "condemned as a rehearsal for nuclear war.”
"Under these circumstances, going to Seoul would be an agonizing step,” stated a letter sent by the North Korean Catholic Association.
Although the Catholic Church is not per se banned in North Korea, the UN recently issued a report which stated that religious believers are severely persecuted in the country.
According to the International Religious Freedom Report for 2013, North Korea was considered one of the worst offenders of religious freedom worldwide, along with Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, China and Cuba. In North Korea, all religious activity is severely restricted and those who do not obey the laws are harshly treated, including the death penalty.
Moreover, through last year, severe restrictions on religious freedom there, which even targeted those who had contact with foreign missionaries, subjected faithful to harsh penalties, including execution.
By contrast, the rate of Catholics in South Korea has sharply risen in the last decade. The number of lay Christians keep climbing, evidenced by the increasing number of adults choosing to become baptized Catholics.