- The Washington Times - Monday, July 10, 2006

California megachurch pastor the Rev. Rick Warren has accepted a rare invitation to preach in North Korea, at an outdoor evangelistic crusade in March, the first such event in the officially atheist state in 60 years.

Mr. Warren will preach in a 15,000-seat stadium in the reclusive communist country, which is known for some of the world’s worst abuses of religious freedom.

North Korea also received worldwide condemnation for its July 4 launch of seven missiles capable of bearing nuclear warheads, all of which landed in the East Sea/Japan Sea.

“Regardless of politics, I will go anywhere I am invited to preach the Gospel,” Mr. Warren said in a weekend statement.

Most of his overseas experience has been in Africa. His visit in March will mark the 100th anniversary of the 1907 Pyongyang Revival, one of the most important events in the spread of Christianity to Korea.

North Korea is almost virgin territory for U.S. evangelists. The Rev. Billy Graham was allowed to preach in two small chapels during a five-day visit in 1992, and his son, Franklin, visited the country in 2000 but was not allowed to preach.

Mr. Warren, author of the best-selling book “The Purpose-Driven Life,” told his congregation June 25 that a group of South Korean businessmen had approached him about preaching in North Korea in the spring.

The evangelist had slated a trip to South Korea this month for preaching engagements in Seoul and Busan. After meeting with U.S. troops near the demilitarized zone, he will cross the border Monday and meet with a North Korean invitational committee at Keum Kang Mountain to organize the March gathering.

At last month’s meeting with his congregation, Mr. Warren said he was aware that efforts to evangelize in communist countries have not always gone well. During Mr. Graham’s 1982 visit to the Soviet Union, the evangelist was widely criticized for remarks indicating he had seen no religious persecution there.

“I know they’re going to use me,” Mr. Warren said in remarks published by Religion News Service. “So I’m going to use them.”

How he would do so is not clear, as religious expression of any kind is severely punished in North Korea, said Suzanne Scholte, chairwoman of the Fairfax-based North Korea Freedom Coalition of 65 human rights, religious and nongovernmental organizations.

“What’s allowed is only worship of Kim Jong-il,” she said, referring to North Korea’s leader. “Who’s going to be in the audience? Anyone showing up is signing their death warrant.”

Nevertheless, the Warren visit “is a brilliant ploy” by the regime, she added.

“If Rick Warren goes in there and preaches, Kim Jong-il can say, ‘What about our lack of religious freedom? We had Rick Warren,’” she said. “But if Rick Warren says, ‘Kim Jong-il is not your god,’ what will be the ramifications?”

Pyongyang’s three churches — two Protestant and one Catholic — plus a partially constructed Russian Orthodox sanctuary are essentially nonfunctioning because Christians dare not enter there, said Debra Liang-Fenton, executive director of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

“These are Potemkin-like theaters in which they claim to practice religious freedom and tolerance, but, in fact, it’s staged,” she said. “Maybe [the Warren visit] is another way for the North Korean government to say in its propaganda that, ‘We allowed a Christian evangelical to preach to our people. So we must be religiously tolerant.’ ”

Larry Ross, Mr. Warren’s spokesman, said the evangelist had caught the attention of North Koreans because of the success of “The Purpose-Driven Life” in South Korea.

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