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Australian missionary reportedly detained in North Korea

By Saeed Ahmed, CNN
February 19, 2014 -- Updated 1044 GMT (1844 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Short, 75, had with him some Gospel tracts, his wife says
  • The Australian government says it is aware of reports of his detention
  • North Korea is already holding a Korean-American reported to have done missionary work
  • The secretive regime doesn't tolerate independent religious activities

(CNN) -- A 75-year-old Australian missionary who traveled to North Korea as part of a tour group has been detained there, his wife said.

John Short had with him some Gospel tracts in Korean "which seem to be at the core of the detention," his wife said in a statement Wednesday.

"It is alleged he is being asked questions such as, 'Who sent you?', 'To what organization do you belong?', 'Who translated this material into Korean?'" his wife, Karen Short, said.

North Korea hasn't so far commented on the reported detention.

Short, who lives in Hong Kong, went to Pyongyang on Saturday.

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The next night, police questioned him at his hotel and took him into custody, according to the statement.

His family found out about the detention only after another member of the group returned to China on Tuesday.

"He has been the only source of information," the wife's statement said.

Short has been arrested multiple times while doing evangelical work in China "for speaking out about brutality against Chinese Christians," according to a biography on a religious website named Gospel Attract.

In the 1990s, he became "persona non grata" with Chinese authorities for almost two years and was unable to visit mainland China, the biography said.

The Australian consulate in Hong Kong said the Australian government is aware of the report.

Since Australia does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea, the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang is handling representations on its behalf.

Last year, North Korea sentenced Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American, to 15 years of hard labor on charges he planned to topple the government through religious activities.

Washington has repeatedly called on Pyongyang to release Bae, expressing concerns about his health. But Kim Jong Un's regime has so far refused to budge.

Bae, 45, was widely reported to have been carrying out missionary work in North Korea. His family says he ran a company specializing in tours of the secretive country.

North Korea has a number of state-controlled churches, but the authoritarian Communist regime doesn't tolerate independent religious activities.

The regime "considers the spread of Christianity a particularly serious threat, since it challenges ideologically the official personality cult and provides a platform for social and political organization and interaction outside the realm of the state," a United Nations panel said in a report released this week.

"People caught practicing Christianity are subject to severe punishments in violation of the right to freedom of religion and the prohibition of religious discrimination," the report by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea said.

READ: 'Abundant evidence' of crimes against humanity in North Korea, panel says

READ: North Korea: 'We were forced to eat grass and soil'

READ: American Kenneth Bae now in North Korea labor camp

CNN's Tim Schwarz, Jethro Mullen and Chieu Luu contributed to this report.

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