ASIA

In Canada, followers of pastor held by North Korea keep their faith

At Light Korean Presbyterian Church on a recent Sunday, there are few outward signs that anything is wrong.

Families crowd the corridors, abuzz in English and Korean. The congregation rises in song. The pastor devotes most of his sermon to the challenges of daily life.

"If we don't turn toward God, we can't see what's right in front of us," he preaches.

Not until the end of the service does he lead a short prayer to address what's been foremost in the minds of many members: the future of the church's longtime leader, the Rev. Lim Hyeon-soo, who is serving a life sentence in a North Korean prison.

"Bring light to North Korea," the worshipers say together. They end every service this way.

Lim, who had visited the reclusive authoritarian country more than 100 times, was arrested there early last year and charged with multiple crimes, including using religion to destroy the North Korean system of government.

His supporters say that the 60-year-old Lim supported a nursing home, orphanage and nursery there and that his trips were humanitarian, not political.

His sentence, handed down last month, includes hard labor.

"We never thought he would be away this long," said one congregant, Song Ho-jin, 47. "But in some ways it has brought us closer, made us more firm."

The two-story church, perched in an industrial area in this suburb of Toronto, had about 100 members when Lim took over in 1986, shortly after moving from South Korea for graduate school. By the time of his detainment in North Korea, the congregation had grown to more than 3,000 people.

Church members said Lim eased the transition to life in Canada for hundreds, if not thousands, of new Korean immigrants over the years.

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When Kim Young-hoon arrived four years ago, he knew almost nobody, spoke haltingly in English and had little money after paying his rent and tuition for training in hotel management. He said Lim and his wife took a personal interest in him, buying him food and socks.

There are churches closer to his home, he said, but he prefers Light Presbyterian, even though it means having to take a bus an hour each way.

"I only want to come here, because Pastor Lim and his wife are such good people," he said.

Those same motives drove the pastor's charity work in North Korea, the 41-year-old Kim said: "It was about love. He loves the North Korean people."

Church members got a fresh look at Lim recently when he was interviewed by CNN. Lim told the network that he was being held at a labor camp, where he works alone eight hours a day, six days a week, digging holes to plant apple trees.

Asked whether he needed anything, Lim said he had requested a Bible, which had not been provided.

"I hope I can go home someday," Lim said. "Nobody knows if I will ever go home, but that is my hope. I miss my family. I am longing to see them again, and my congregation."

The chances of that happening are uncertain.

When American citizens are imprisoned in North Korea, it usually takes a high-profile U.S. official to travel to there to negotiate their release.

Lim is no longer a South Korean citizen, so he will have to rely on the Canadian government. Canada does not have full diplomatic relations with North Korea, but officials from the Canadian Embassy in Seoul did have consular access to Lim after he was sentenced.

"Consular officials are providing assistance to Mr. Lim and his family," Francois Lasalle, a spokesman for Canada's foreign affairs department, wrote in an email. He said officials are "continuously working toward a resolution" of Lim's case, but declined to provide further details.

Lisa Pak, a spokeswoman for the church, said that Canadian diplomats have kept church officials abreast of the situation and that, as far as she knows, Lim is in good health and "at peace knowing that people are praying for him."

At the church, framed photographs show Lim with various members on missions in Central Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.

Lim's name remains on his closed office door, and several letters sit unopened in his mailbox.

Borowiec is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Alexandra Zavis in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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A version of this article appeared in print on January 21, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Church yearns for leader's return - Head of Canadian congregation still in N. Korea prison" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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