Rick Warren

Rick Warren’s popular “The Purpose-Driven Life” – the Christian bestseller credited by many last year with playing a role in convincing an Atlanta courthouse-shooting suspect to surrender after his murderous rampage and to release his hostage – may be put to an even tougher test next year when the Southern California preacher holds the first evangelical stadium crusade in 60 years in North Korea.

Warren, who is on a 40-day, 13-nation tour, will visit Kaesong on July 17 to plan for the March 2007 crusade after being invited by a group of North Korean businessmen who visited him at his Saddleback Church’s Lake Forest office last month.

“I will be the first preacher in 60 years to speak publicly in North Korea,” Warren told the Orange County Register. “I’m honored.”

He said the North Korean government would allow him to preach in a stadium seating 15,000 but a larger venue would be provided if he could fill the seats.

Because there are no diplomatic relations between the two countries, the businessmen, who say they met with Warren and extended the invitation to preach with approval of the North Korean government, are facilitating his visit next week.

“We are ready to go on our end. We’re just waiting for information back on approval and access,” Anne Krumm, a spokeswoman for the church, said.

North Korea’s missile tests have cast uncertainty on whether Warren, who is presently in Indonesia, can enter North Korea as planned.

“They’re trying to figure out how they can get in and how to do that,” she said.

Warren compares his opportunity to preach in the communist state to Rev. Billy Graham’s visit to the then-Soviet Union, saying he hopes to be able to promote religious freedom where it has been severely restricted since 1945.

“When you go in they have to loosen up on religious freedoms,” Warren said. “They have to just by your presence. It’s like Mandela going into a country. Automatically people start loosening up.”

Suzanne Scholte, chairman of the North Korea Freedom Coalition isn’t so sure.

“This is a Satanic regime,” Scholte told Chad Groening of American Family Radio, “and to go in there and believe that you could actually preach freely is an illusion. It won’t do anything to help the church. It will only put the true church at risk, and it will be used as a propaganda piece by the Kim Jong Il regime.”

Warren said he is aware that some might misinterpret his visit as an endorsement of the North Korean regime.

“When Billy Graham went to the Soviet Union, there was a lot of criticism of: ‘Well, they’re using you.’ And he said: ‘Well, yeah, they’re using me, but I’m using them too.’,” Warren said.

Graham was criticized following his 1982 visit to Moscow for letting himself be used by the communists when he said he had seen no evidence of religious persecution by the Soviet government and observed that religious freedom was somewhat greater among the people than he had anticipated.

When preaching at the Yelohovski Russian Orthodox Cathedral, Graham exhorted his audience to be better members of the communist state: “God can make you love people you normally would not love. He gives you the power to be a better worker, a more loyal citizen because in Romans 13 we are told to obey the authorities.”

Scholte questions what message Warren will be allowed to deliver.

“Kim Jong Il has set himself up as a god. Is he going to say, ‘Kim Jong Il is not your god – God is God’?” she asked. “They are raised to believe Kim Jong Il is god and that the God we worship doesn’t exist. And so, what is he going to preach?”

Since 2001, North Korea has been designated a “country of particular concern” for violations of religious freedom. Its citizens may not belong to unauthorized religious groups, and believers who proselytize or have ties to evangelical groups in China are arrested, tortured or executed, a 2005 State Department report said.

Given North Korea’s history of persecution, Scholte’s fear is that the government will use the crusade to identify Christian believers who will be “rounded up and sent to a political prison camp” once Warren leaves the country.

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