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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Mission From God in North Korea

KHABAROVSK, Far East -- At the invitation of an atheist leader, Denis Bondarenko and Vitaly Fonichenko are on a mission from God.

Their destination is North Korea, the last Stalinist state on Earth, ruled by a government that bans free worship and branded by U.S. President George W. Bush as part of an "axis of evil."

Next year, the two trainee priests will open a Russian Orthodox church in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang -- the first in the isolated country now at the center of an international dispute over its nuclear weapons program.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il personally ordered its construction after a surprise visit to a church in Khabarovsk on a 2001 tour across Russia on his personal train.

He has now sent four North Korean academics to a Moscow seminary to train as Orthodox priests.

So why would the atheist leader of a country where all foreign influence is regarded with suspicion suddenly start to show interest in the Orthodox faith?

"God knows," said Dmitry Petrovsky from the church's external relations department with a slight smile. "Sometimes, God works in mysterious ways."

The church's aim, ostensibly, is to cater for the 300 to 400 Russians living and working in Pyongyang and perhaps a handful of North Korean followers of the Orthodox faith, he said.

But this church is much more than a house of worship. It is a symbol of a new relationship between the two former communist allies, which drifted apart after Moscow opened ties with South Korea in 1990 and then cut subsidies for the North after the Soviet Union's collapse a year later.

"It's a political gesture," one Moscow-based diplomat said. "The important thing is that it opens up another channel of communication with Pyongyang."

But Galina Prozorova, author of a book on the history of the Orthodox church, said the church is not just about diplomacy. "I think Kim knows there is not just an economic crisis in his country but a spiritual one," she said. "He also knows that Russian patriotism today is very closely linked to the church. Maybe he would like the same in his country."

Construction, funded by North Korea, began in June after a ceremony to consecrate the church's foundation stone. Bells are being made at a factory near Moscow.

The two Russian student priests who volunteered to open the mission have been studying Korean for several months.

And the four North Koreans who will eventually take over from them began accelerated training for the priesthood in April at the Moscow Theological Seminary. "They mostly concentrate on two things -- Russian language, including church Slavonic, and the catechism to prepare for baptism," Petrovsky said. "It's a really different way of life for them."

Religion is controlled by the state in North Korea and worship banned outside the official Korean Union of Believers.

The Orthodox Church has now been approved as an official religion, but proselytizing is strictly taboo. The priests' flock will consist largely of Russian Embassy staff. "Still," Prozorova said, "it's wonderful to think of those church bells ringing out over Pyongyang."