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Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Explained: South Korea’s battle between churches and state over Covid-19

News reports suggest that this second wave occurred in part due to a clash between South Korean President Moon Jae-in's health policy and conservative church groups opposing these policy measures.

Written by Neha Banka , Edited by Explained Desk | Kolkata | Updated: September 6, 2020 9:40:40 am
South Korea, South Korea coronavirus, South Korea covid cases, South Korea covid outbreak, South Korea covid second wave, South Korea churches, Explained Global, Express Explained, Indian ExpressA public official disinfects as a precaution against the coronavirus at the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, South Korea, Friday, Aug. 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

For months, South Korea was among the few nations that appeared to have managed to control the outbreak of COVID-19, using a model that kept its economy running, and did not involve putting its biggest cities under lockdown, or closing access to its borders, as observed elsewhere in the world. South Korea was seen as an example of how to successfully contain the virus.

South Korea had managed to control the spread of a larger outbreak in part due to aggressive contact-tracing, testing and enforcing mandatory face masks, government programmes that had largely been accepted by residents as necessary measures to combat coronavirus.

By mid-August however, the country began witnessing the start of its second wave of infections with numbers being recorded in triple digits. News reports suggest that this second wave occurred in part due to a clash between South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s health policy and conservative church groups opposing these policy measures. While there have been several clusters of infection since January, the largest have been traced to some of the country’s largest churches and anti-government rallies that have been held in violation of health regulations in force. However, for some, the tussle between these churches and government health regulations has become one also involving religious and civic freedoms.

Why are churches opposing South Korea’s Covid–19 health regulations?

The first known case of coronavirus infections linked to churches in South Korea can be traced to February when a 61-year-old woman became the first congregant at Shincheonji Church of Jesus in the city of Daegu to test positive. It was unclear how she was infected but within two days of her testing positive, 15 more people connected to the Shincheonji church also tested positive. Within a month, thousands of people who had come in contact with members of the church were found to be Covid-19 positive and new clusters of infections with links to the church and churchgoers began appearing across South Korea.

In a little over a month’s time, by March, more than half of South Korea’s total infections were linked to this particular church, with the biggest cluster being traced to Daegu.

The South Korean government began banning large gatherings, closing schools, offices and public places, and making face masks mandatory in an attempt to curb the spread of infections.

As news spread of the Shincheonji church being the source of new infection clusters, public calls in South Korea grew, demanding government intervention to disband the organisation.

Controversy isn’t new for this secretive church. For years, the organisation has faced criticism for its underhand and secretive recruiting methods and with coronavirus, the criticism has only grown. The church and its supporters have rejected criticism, and have claimed that they are being used as scapegoats by the government’s mishandling of the pandemic and the closing of churches and aggressive contract-tracing methods are being used to out and hound church members in what they consider a violation of religious freedom.

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Are there other churches involved?

For the first time since March, South Korea reported approximately 279 new Covid-19 cases in mid-August, with infections being recorded in similar numbers on consecutive days. South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported that at least 300 new cases were linked to the Sarang Jeil church, according to the Seoul metropolitan government.

This new cluster led to public anger against the church, similar to what was observed months ago in the case of the Shincheonji church, with 200,000 South Koreans signing an online petition, calling for Sarang Jeil’s head pastor Rev Jun Kwang-hoon to be detained.

According to a Reuters report, infections were first recorded among church members on August 12, following which the head pastor and other church members violated government rules by participating in a mass anti-government rally in central Seoul on August 15. After speaking at the rally, Jun tested positive for Covid-19, along with 739 other members of the church.

What is the conflict between churches and South Korea’s government?

Rev. Jun Kwang-hoon, a right-wing pastor, has been a vocal critic of President Moon Jae-in, particularly his policies towards North Korea. Jun, who is presently out on bail concerning election charges, has also repeatedly flouted health orders in force in South Korea. At the packed rally in Seoul in mid-August, Jun’s supporters were engaged in an altercation and dispute with police who were trying to enforce public health and physical distancing orders.

When the South Korean government had tried to enforce contact-tracing following the discovery of the first cluster related to the Shincheonji, local news reports had started that church authorities had refused to cooperate with government authorities by not providing a full list of their church membership. There were allegations of the church providing false names and addresses, making it harder to enforce public health protocols.

In August, the head of Shincheonji church, Lee Man-hee, was arrested on grounds that he hid information about the church’s members and gatherings. The church denies these allegations and says the organisation and its members are being unfairly targeted.

Members of the Sarang Jeil church claim its leader and members are being deliberately targeted in a “religious witch hunt” for their political views and for being vocal critics of the South Korean president.

Since the outbreak of the virus and an increase in infection numbers, the South Korean government has limited indoor gatherings to 50 people and outdoor gatherings to 100 people, and the government says these church groups have been violating public health rules.

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