The constitution provides for "freedom of religious belief," but in practice the government discourages all organized religious activity except that which serves the interests of the State. Real religious freedom does not exist. The constitution also states that "no one can use religion as a means to drag in foreign powers" or to disrupt the social order.
According to current government estimates, a majority of the population professes no religion or are avowed atheists. However, foreign observers indicate that religious activity within the country is much greater than the government suggests. Indigenous shamanism, notable for its emphasis on exorcising evil spirits, is practiced by a small percentage of the population, mostly in rural areas. The government reports that about 40,000 people are followers of Ch'ondogyo (Religion of the Heavenly Way), an eclectic indigenous sect incorporating both Christian and Buddhist elements. Originating in 1860, this organization went underground following the arrest of 10,000 Ch'ondogyo members in 1948. The government estimates there are 10,000 Buddhists who remain active despite the conversion of many Buddhist temples to secular uses.
Up to the mid-1940s, P'yongyang was an important center of Korean Christianity. Most of the nation's Christians, predominantly Protestants, fled to the ROK to escape persecution between 1945 and 1953. Christians now make up less than 1% of the population, or about 14,000 people according to the government. A number of Christian churches are overseen by lay leaders, since there are very few ordained priests and ministers. House churches may be more common among Christians; however, since these meetings are generally kept secret, there is no exact data concerning membership or participation. Those caught proselytizing may be arrested and are subject to harsh penalties.