Discrimination of Shincheonji members during the Covid-19 pandemic

Looking for scapegoats is historically common in times of epidemics. Unsurprisingly, during the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, unpopular religious minorities around the world have found themselves accused of spreading the virus through their activities. South Korea provides a vivid example of how public health emergencies can increase the risks for religious groups. 

The discrimination faced by the members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus extends from before the Covid-19 pandemic. In the Republic of Korea, a strong opposition to Shincheonji exists, fueled by fundamentalist and conservative Christian churches. The Shincheonji Church is considered to be a cult by many mainline Protestant denominations. Mainline Protestant churches have shown their hostility against the Shincheonji Church with campaigns such as “Shincheonji OUT!”, that seeks to demonize anyone related to Shincheonji. Shincheonji founder, Chairman Lee Man-hee, is also vocal regarding the systemic corruption of the Christian Council of Korea (CCK), one of South Korea’s most powerful networks of churches.

Freedom of religion or belief is a fundamental human right protected by Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). As a member state of the UN, the Republic of Korea has committed to abide to the ICCPR. Thus, authorities are bound to enforce the prohibition of any form of coercion intended to force followers of religious denominations to recant their faith, but the reality is much different. Shincheonji members have been the main victims of kidnapping and confinement carried out by fundamentalist protestant Churches with the purpose of forceful change of religion even before the recent Coronavirus outbreak.

South Korea registered its first case of Coronavirus on January 24, 2020. On February 18th, a Shincheonji member from the city of Daegu was confirmed to be the 31st case of Coronavirus in South Korea. On the same day, Shicheonji closed all its centers in Daegu, and recommended that all its members avoid private gatherings, and go into self-quarantine. It also tested all its members at its own expenses. Despite his own initial lackadaisical response to the pandemic, on February 23rd president Moon Jae-in openly blamed Shincheonji for South Korea’s Covid-19 outbreak. Shincheonji is also being blamed for Covid-19 because of the false allegations that the church did not cooperate with the government and hindered quarantine efforts by providing an incomplete list of members and by advising congregants not to communicate with the government. Seoul City Major Park Won-soon went as far as suing the key leaders of Shincheonji “for murder, injury and violation of prevention and management of infectious diseases.” More than 1.2 million South Koreans have signed an online petition calling for the church to be disbanded. Despite this, Vice Minister of Health Kim Kang-lip has publicly stated that the Shincheonji Church has cooperated with authorities.

There also seems to be political motivations at play, as South Korea was headed towards its 2020 legislative election on April 15th and public sentiment towards the current administration was negative before Shincheonji became spotlighted as the “cause.” The claims of anti-Shincheonji groups have been repeated in the media and by politicians during this years’ election cycle to detract criticism and attention away from the government. Many have spoken about the government’s “clear responsibility” in the Coronavirus wide dispersion in Korea. Even the former Chairman of the Korean Infectious Diseases Association stated that the government “attacked specific organizations as soon as holes in quarantine measures were exposed,” like in the case of Shincheonji. 

Shincheonji was easily slandered by government officials as a national scapegoat for Covid-19. Shincheonji members have faced persecution for their religious affiliation in the form of verbal harassment, family persecution and threat, dismissal from work and mistreatment, physical assaults, denial of medical treatment, domestic violence, kidnapping, forced isolation, being forced into mental institutions, and even murder.

This discrimination has extended to elementary, middle, high schools and university campuses, where students and educators face verbal attacks, social shaming, and public discrimination. Some university students have also been told to leave public areas like dormitories as a result of their affiliation to Shincheonji. 

Mr. Lee was arrested on August 1, 2020, on the accusation of obstructing the government’s efforts to contain Coronavirus’ spread. A Shincheonji spokesman called the court’s decision to issue an arrest warrant for the 88-year-old leader “regrettable” and said the church members would do their utmost “to let the truth prevail during the court trial.”

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) reported on the “considerable criticism and even harassment,” faced by Shincheonji members, and many NGOs and religious leaders have appealed to the United Nations and on the South Korean government to call for an end to the oppression. 

All governments, even in response to the urgency of the pandemic, must take responsibility for the protection of human rights, regardless of religion, race, ethnicity or socio-economic status. The South Korean government’s scapegoating of the Shincheonji Church sets a dangerous precedent for allowing similar persecution, violence and harassment against other religious minorities. 

In spite of the international community’s reaction, there has been little reprieve and the South Korean government has not commented on the request. Shincheonji leader, Mr. Lee, is still detained indefinitely and awaiting the prosecution. 

This information was given to GHRD by one of the trusted researcher based in United States of America. For more details:

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