David Alton has been a Crossbench Peer since 1997 and previously served for 18 years as a Liberal Democrat in the House of Commons. His most recent book, “Building Bridges – is there hope for North Korea?” was recently published by Lion and is available on Kindle.
The irony wasn’t lost on me or my travelling companions as our Air China plane touched down at Pyongyang airport and the cabin was filled with the usual end-of-flight piped music to calm passengers’ nerves. Usual – except that the state-owned Chinese aircraft arriving in North Korea was belting out Isaac Watts’ Christmas carol, written in 1791, and based on Psalm 98, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her King.”
It’s been a very long time since Christmas was celebrated in a city which was once known as the Jerusalem of the East; a very long time since its people experienced the joy celebrated in Isaac Watts’ carol. North Korea’s leaders might reflect that, in his original manuscript, Watts not only celebrates Christ’s first coming but also wrote of His triumphant second coming – His return when He will judge and hold all to account for their deeds.
I chair the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea and with Baroness (Caroline) Cox and Ben Rogers of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission we were in North Korea to raise human rights issues.
We saw at first hand the artefacts of a State which cruelly and barbarously crushes its own people and in four token, hollow and largely fake Potemkin-style official churches, we saw the attempts to fool visitors into believing that the regime permits belief in something other than its own dynastic ideology.
The recent execution of the reform-minded Chang Song-thaek, Kim Jong-un’s uncle; the purges; the reign of terror; the falsifying of history; the show trials; the network of gulags which incarcerate 300,000 people; and the attempt to obliterate religious belief and all political dissent, bear all the hallmarks of a regime which has carefully studied, admires and imitates the visceral brutality of Joseph Stalin. Not for nothing are visitors shown the bullet proof railway carriage which Stalin gave as a gift to Kim Il Sung.
Chang Song-thaek’s execution was not a one-off event. In the month preceding his execution – the Times reported that in seven cities on one day the regime carried out 80 public executions for the “crime” of watching South Korean television dramas or owning Bibles. The Times described the victims being tied to stakes, hooded and killed by machine gun.
In harrowing evidence given to my Westminster committee, Jeon Young-Ok, an escapee from one of the gulags, underlined the fate of anyone found to harbour religious beliefs: “They tortured the Christians the most. They were denied food and sleep. They were forced to stick out their tongues and iron was pushed into it.”
In a state shorn of religious belief – and the voluntary out-pouring for the common good which is a characteristic of Christianity, not least in the vibrant democracy of South Korea – North Koreans suffer unbelievable hardship.
In a famine which recalls the excesses and the indifference of Stalin and Mao Zedong (who between them let over 50 million people die of famine), two million North Koreans died during the 1990s. Earlier this year, The Sunday Times reported that in two provinces, North Hwanghae and South Hwanghae, as many as 10,000 people had died of starvation and that the starving had resorted to cannibalism.
The Korean people – north and south – who have suffered so much during the course of the last century are some of the finest people in the world and they deserve much much better than this.
On December 10th we commemorated the 65th anniversary of the promulgation of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was crafted in the aftermath of events in Europe: comparable with those which torment North Korea today.
The Declaration speaks across generations and continents rebuking and reminding us that “disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind”. It called on political leaders to uphold the very right to life itself, and to create “a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want”.
Christmas is a timely moment to consider how well we safeguard that right to belief – contained in Article 18 – and largely honoured in its breech. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on International Religious Freedom or Belief, chaired by Baroness (Elizabeth) Berridge has accurately dubbed Article 18 an “orphaned right”.
Not just orphaned, but – as Sayeeda Warsi, the Foreign Office Minister, recently warned – in large parts of the world, extinguished. In many countries, she said, Christians “face extinction” and that senior politicians in countries like Pakistan have a “duty” to denounce persecution and to set a standard for tolerance.
Growing restrictions on freedom of conscience range from the suffering of the Ahmadiyya Muslim communities in Pakistan and Indonesia (which also imprisons atheists) to the plight of the Baha’is in Iran and Egypt; from the Rohingyas and other Muslims in Burma to Falun Gong, Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims in China and, of course, Christians in all of these countries, as well as in countries as diverse as Egypt, Syria, Nigeria, Sudan, India, Eritrea and Cuba. Every year thousands of Christians die for their faith.
This Christmas, spare a thought for the continued aerial bombardment of civilian populations in Darfur and the Nuba Mountains by the Islamist Khartoum Government.
Spare a thought for the two little girls murdered in Egypt last month as they attended a Coptic wedding – and for the Coptic communities without churches in which to celebrate the Nativity because those churches were burnt to the ground in Egypt’s Kristallnacht earlier this year.
Spare a thought for the grieving families in Peshawar, still mourning the killing of 81 Anglican worshippers murdered by Taliban assassins and for the family of the Catholic, Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s Cabinet Minister with responsibility for minorities – whose murderers have never been brought to justice.
Spare a thought, too, for the 40 Nigerian students murdered by Boko Haram while asleep in their dormitory and who, in an orgy of violence, continue to terrorise Christian communities and systematically to raze churches to the ground.
Spare a thought for the terrible suffering of the people of Syria, where Christians have been targeted by the Islamist militias of al-Nusra Front and Daash – and where, in the ancient Christian settlement of Sadad, two mass graves have been discovered.
And, as we welcome the coming of the Prince of Peace, who enters the world as a child, spare a thought, and perhaps a prayer, for the children who are caught up in this terrible violence.
Whether it is the child trapped in the cross fire of a Sudanese militia; the young girl raped by a Congolese war lord; the Ugandan child murdered in a pagan ritual of child sacrifice; the child enlisted to be a child soldier or a drugs runner; the boy or girl who is trafficked, exploited, robbed of innocence or abused; the child who each year joins the 100,000 UK runaways; or the unborn baby, like the one recently killed in Aleppo with a sniper’s bullet through his head – who had been sheltering in what should be the safest place on earth – her mother’s womb – we feel all too keenly the 16th century Coventry caroller’s lament, written by Robert Croo in 1534 : “Herod, the king, in his raging,/ Charged he hath this day,/ His men of might, in his own sight,/ All young children to slay.”
It is a sobering thought that, even as those near magical and enchanted moments were being enacted in the presence of angels, shepherds and Magi around Bethlehem’s manger, Herod’s butchers were sharpening and making ready their knives.
Two thousand years may have passed but only a fool dismisses the presence of evil in our world. Only the callous can remain indifferent.
The innocent boy in the manger represents all persecuted people. His acute vulnerability must surely challenge us to take a stand against the merciless destruction of innocent life and to pit ourselves against today’s Herods and their contemporary crimes against humanity.
The Christmas narrative is an instructive story of a young man and woman caught up in a bewildering drama – who through it all remain faithful to one another and who cherish a new life. It is the story of a man who stands by a woman unexpectedly with a child that isn’t his; it’s the story of a boy born in a manger swaddled in poverty; the refugee’s story of a forced escape; the story of a tyrant with a blood lust; and it is a story lived out against the threatening drum beat of arrest, escape, vilification and persecution. It’s a story of God’s own Incarnation; a story which will end on Calvary and triumphantly in an empty tomb.
It is a mistake to let the Christmas story be muffled by the sentimentalism, rank commercialisation, and forced conviviality into which Christmas celebrations can degenerate.
It’s a moment to sing, with Isaac Watts, that this is a time to proclaim joy to the world, a moment for awe, but also a moment to confront and to hold to account those who are responsible for the depredations and egregious violations of human rights which I have described.