OTTAWA (Reuters) – Diplomats from Canada this week paid a rare visit to North Korea and were able to see a Canadian pastor serving a life sentence for subversion, a foreign ministry official said on Thursday.
Hyeon Soo Lim, who served at one of the largest churches in Canada, was sentenced to hard labor for life in December 2015 for what North Korea says was an attempt to overthrow the regime. He is the only Western citizen known to be held currently in North Korea.
Chantal Gagnon, a spokeswoman for Canadian Foreign Minister Stephane Dion, confirmed a report by North Korea’s KCNA news agency that said the diplomats visited the country from Tuesday until Thursday and saw Lim.
“We are still very concerned about his health, well-being and continued detention and are working actively to secure his release,” she said.
“This case is absolutely a priority for us,” she added, declining to give details of Lim’s health.
In a statement, Lim’s Toronto-area church said “we are hopeful that this is a positive sign that we will see Reverend Lim released and home soon.”
Canada established diplomatic relations with Pyongyang in 2001 but froze them in 2010. Ottawa now says it will only talk to North Korea about regional security, human rights and consular cases.
The church has said Lim visited North Korea more than 100 times since 1997 and helped set up an orphanage and nursing home.
In January, Lim told CNN he spends eight hours a day digging holes at a labor camp where he has not seen any other prisoners.
(Reporting by David Ljunggren and Andrea Hopkins; Editing by James Dalgleish and Andrew Hay)
The husband of Asia Bibi, the Pakistani woman imprisoned on false charges of blasphemy, says that a bounty has been placed upon her head by Muslims who want her killed.
Ashiq Masih, who has been fighting for his wife’s freedom, told MailOnline that Muslim clerics have put a bounty on her head in case she is freed after a hearing later this month.
“The Maulvis [clerics] want her dead,” he told the MailOnline. “They have announced a prize of [98 to $4,915] for anyone who kills Asia. They have even declared that if the court acquits her they will ensure the death sentence stands.”
The family has been also the subject of threats of violence by Muslim groups. They have been forced to move 15 times since Asia’s death sentence in 2010. They only go out at night and cover their faces so they cannot be identified.
Ashiq said he misses his wife and wants her home.
“I really love her and miss her presence,’ he said. ‘I cannot sleep at night as I miss her. I miss her smile; I miss everything about her. She is my soul mate. I cannot see her in prison. It breaks my heart. Life has been non-existent without her.”
Groups worldwide have been calling for Bibi’s release from the false charges.
Three Iranian pastors who were facing six years in prison for committing “action against national security” by sharing Christ have been acquitted of their crimes.
Behman Irani, the leader of the 300 member Church of Iran, had been facing 18 new charges along with two other pastors in the church, Abdolreza Ali-Haghnejad and Reza Rabbani.
The charges included “spreading corruption on Earth” which carries a death penalty.
An appeals court overturned the convictions of the three men on December 9th. Irani is still being held in prison because of a conviction on another charge that has him in jail for another two years.
“It is encouraging to see the Iranian judicial system rule on the merits of the case, rather than simply exploiting the system as a means of persecuting religious minorities, as is regularly the case,” International Christian Concern Regional Manager Todd Daniels remarked in a statement. “It is a fundamental aspect of religious freedom to be able to meet together with others who share your beliefs. For too long, the Iranian regime has treated such meetings as a threat to national security.”
While the leaders of Pakistan were using a blasphemy law to persecute Christians and keep a Christian mother jailed on false charges, the United States was giving the Pakistani government over $7.5 billion.
The American Center for Law and Justice is now calling for the United States to end financial aid to countries that persecute religious minorities.
“We must stop sending billions of our taxpayer dollars to nations that persecute Christians. It’s that simple. Not one more dime for persecution. Cut off American foreign aid to any country that persecutes Christians,” a petition started by the ACLJ reads. “As a wave of persecution sweeps across the Middle East — and Christians flee for their lives — it’s time for the money to stop. Already there is growing support for basic human rights and basic common sense on Capitol Hill.”
The focus of the petition is Asia Bibi, a Christian woman falsely accused of blasphemy by Muslims who were upset she took a drink of water from a bowl they wanted to use to drink.
Bibi’s death sentence for blasphemy is now in the hands of the country’s supreme court.
A United Nations panel has slammed Iran for their continued imprisonment of Pastor Saeed Abedini for his Christian faith.
The Iranians have been firm in refusing to free the pastor before the end of an eight-year prison term for being a Christian.
United Nations Human Rights Council Working Group on Arbitrary Detention says that the 34-year-old Abedini “has been deprived of his liberty for peacefully exercising the rights to freedom of religion, belief, and association.”
The report detailed all the issues surrounding the imprisonment of Abedini and called for his immediate release.
Saeed’s wife Naghmeh has been pleading with the White House and lawmakers to do something to free her husband from his wrongful imprisonment. She hopes that the U.N. report will be a large step toward her husband’s release.
“There are times where your cause feels forgotten — but today is not one of those days,” Naghmeh told Fox News. “From the depths of my heart, I urge the member countries of the UN to act on the recommendations of this report. As these countries sit face-to-face with Iran during the upcoming UN General Assembly, I plead with them to ask for my husband’s release. It is time for our family to be re-united. My children need their father and I need my husband.”
The administration has been criticized for negotiating the release of potential traitor Bowe Bergdahl while doing virtually nothing to gain the release of Abedini from Iran.