The residents were not openly celebrating Christmas – you can be imprisoned, tortured or even executed for showing festive cheer.
How will Christians under pressure for their faith celebrate Christmas? The third installment in our series focuses on North Korea.
North Korea is the most difficult country in which to live as a Christian, according to the advocacy charity Open Doors, which has ranked it no. 1 in its World Watch List of persecution for the past 11 years. The handful of permitted churches in the capital, Pyongyang, are seen by critics as little more than window-dressing, to give foreigners the impression that religious freedom exists. However any North Korean who is identified as a Christian is seen as defying the imperative to revere President Kim Jong-Un, and is at risk of imprisonment and torture in a labour camp, where they may die.
Kim officially banned Christmas festivities last year, directing any citizen who would have celebrated the day to commemorate 24 December 1919, the birthdate of his grandmother, instead. And this year he has outlawed gatherings that involve singing and consuming alcohol, according to South Korea. For years a 60′ tower just inside South Korean territory was lit up like a Christmas tree and topped with an illuminated cross. Visible from within North Korea, Pyongyang described is as a “provocative display of psychological warfare”.
Given such overt hostility towards Christmas and Christian symbols, it is little surprise that many North Korean believers hide their faith from family, friends and neighbours. They will most likely celebrate Christmas alone and in secret. A meeting could be two people on a park bench muttering prayers and praise quietly. Occasionally, for Christians in remote areas, groups of up to 70 people might dare to meet.
Nonetheless, Open Doors believes the church there is growing, and may have as many as 300,000 members. The charity believes some North Koreans have become Christians when they flee to neighbouring countries in search of food, and share their faith when they return home.
North Korea ranks as the worst country for Christian persecution on the annual Open Doors World Watch List, a position it has maintained over the past 18 years. The organization estimates that many of the country’s own citizens — including around 50,000 believers — are being held in detention centers, prisons, or political camps.