International Scholars Raise Concerns over “an Attempt to Destroy a New Religious Movement” in South Korea
On July 20, LA local minority church members spoke out at an international human rights webinar titled “COVID-19 and Religious Freedom: Scapegoating Shincheonji in South Korea”, which addressed the recent issues of aggressive attack from politically powerful conservative and fundamentalist Protestant churches in the country on a newly-established, fast-growing Christian denomination named 'Shincheonji (New Heaven and New Earth) Church of Jesus' founded in 1984.
The new Christian movement by Shincheonji has become a target because “conservative and fundamentalist protestants who see Shincheonji as a competitor and want to destroy it," said Massimo Introvigne as an Italian sociologist of religion who studied Shincheonji before and after the COVID-19 pandemic and published the first account of the religious group in English.
Alessandro Amicarelli, Chairman European Federation for Freedom of Belief, pointed out that the South Korean authorities problematized Shincheonji as a cause of the COVID-19 crisis to shut down the church.
Ciaran Burke, Associate Professor in University of Derby, expressed concerns over “collecting personal information of 300,000 domestic and international Shincheonji members by the government which is a possible violation of international agreement, especially the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) South Korea ratified in 1990.”
The prosecution initiated investigation of Shincheonji leaders including founder Man Hee Lee for his alleged role in the widespread of the COVID-19. Three Shincheonji officials were arrested on July 8 on a charge of playing a role in major outbreak at its early stage by “(submitting) inaccurate list of members.”
A recent statement issued by “families of the deceased and victims of COVID-19” wrote that "the thousands of the damage and deaths of Koreans reflect the failure of initial response to contain the virus by the government." It added that the Minister of Justice Choo Mi-ae “allowed COVID-19 patients from China to enter Korea, leading to a widespread outbreak of the virus across the country, which resulted in the deaths of the Korean people.” It also stated that she is trying to avoid her responsibility for the damage by “giving direct orders to prosecutors for a raid and arrests against Shincheonji Church”.
As the religious discrimination event in Asia continues to cause carry over to other countries, including USA, members of the LA branch of the Shincheonji Church as well as local human rights activists also raised their voices.
“My family and friends have always been supportive of me and my faith, but now that media has blown up this false image of my church, people are starting to look at me like a criminal,” said Davina Brown, an LA Shincheonji Church member. “It’s not ok to ostracize me because my faith is different than yours; I didn’t make the COVID virus, neither did my church, and I’m being very careful to make sure I don’t ever catch it or spread it.”
A South Korean TV network, MBC reported that a recently conducted screening at Daegu furthers the failure of the government’s initial response to contain the virus. The report inferred that at least 180,000 of the 2.4 million people in Daegu were infected with the COVID-19, 27 times to the official 6,800 confirmed cases. With a mere 5,000 cases out of a total of 180,000 potential infections stemming from Shincheonji Church, the report eludes to the reality that the minority church has been a biased target through the COVID-19 pandemic since late February. Panelists concluded the webinar seeking further investigation from authorities in order to exonerate Shincheonji from the statistically inaccurate blame it has received.