Believers in Jesus Christ will most likely celebrate the birth of their savior in isolation if they live in North Korea, where it is a state crime to be a Christian.
In public, there will be no observation of Christmas and citizens will go on with their daily routines as if it were any other day in the year. There will be no string lights on the streets, no wreaths, no Christmas music, and no holiday greetings in public as well as private.
North Korea remains one of the few countries in the world where citizens are not permitted to celebrate Christmas at all.
But Christianity is alive and growing in the oppressive communist state with some estimates putting the underground Christian population at tens of thousands.
Although these believers are not allowed to openly express their joy at Christmas, they will still observe the meaning of the holiday, according to a Christian ministry working with persecuted believers in North Korea.
“But, of course, Christians do reflect on the birth of Jesus Christ,” said Brother Simon, who coordinates the work of Open Doors in North Korea, from a secret location. “Only they can’t just go along to church to sing or listen to a sermon. They can’t even visit one another to read the Bible together. Being a Christian in North Korea is very lonely.”
Simon, whose full name cannot be given for security reasons, explains that believers in North Korea can usually only gather two at a time on a given Sunday. A Christian would sit on a park bench and another Christian would come sit next to him. If no one is around, they may be able to share a Bible verse they know by heart and briefly give a reflection. They also share prayer topics with each other, said Simon.
“Then they leave one another and go and look for Christians in some other part of their town. This continues throughout Sunday,” he said.
A cell group usually has less than 20 Christians who meet and encourage one another this way or meet one-on-one in people’s homes.
In this way, Christmas will also be celebrated.
“Christmas is mainly celebrated in the heart of the Christian,” said Simon. “Only if the whole family has turned to Christ is it possible to have something like a real gathering. For fear of retribution it is necessary to keep your faith hidden from the neighbors.”
But in remote areas, a group of up to 20 people can sometimes meet. In rare instances, some gatherings in the mountains bring together some 60 to 70 North Korean Christians.
North Korea is ranked number one in the annual Open Doors Watch List as the country that has the worst persecution of Christians. If the regime discovers a person is a Christian, the believer can be thrown into a labor camp, tortured, or even publicly executed to dissuade others from following the faith.
It is believed that tens of thousands of Christians are currently suffering in North Korean prison camps, according to Open Doors. The regime is suspected of detaining more political and religious prisoners than any other country in the world.
Instead of a globally recognized religion, citizens of the reclusive country are forced to worship a cult-like version of the trinity consisting of the deceased dictator Kim Il Sung (father), current dictator Kim Jong Il (son) and the Juche ideology.
All religions other than the worship of the North Korean dictators are forbidden. Christianity, in particular, is seen as the greatest threat to the state and to Kim’s power and is harshly punished.
The U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, John V. Hanford III, described North Korea as the “worst violator of religious freedom in the world” during his presentation earlier this year of the 2007 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom.