Campaigners for religious freedom have written to the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights to “stop the witch hunt” of a Christian sect at the heart of the coronavirus outbreak in South Korea.
Nine international NGOs, including the Centre for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR) and the International Observatory of Religious Liberty of Refugees (ORLIR), have joined forces to voice their concern over what they describe as the mounting “hysteria” over Shincheonji, a religious movement that has more than 200,000 followers.
More than 4,000 cases have now been confirmed in South Korea, with about 60 per cent associated with the church in Daegu, the country’s fourth-largest city.
The signatories have told Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner of Human Rights and Sam Brownback, US Ambassador-at-Large for international religious freedom: “We are deeply concerned with a growing number of instances of intolerance and discrimination against Shincheonji, a South Korean new religious movement, after a number of its members were diagnosed with COVID-19.”
The letter details discrimination that followers have experienced in recent years, which has led many to conceal their identities.
It says: “The hysteria is growing every day, further violence is easy to predict, and we believe that the only way of stopping it is internationalising the crisis.
“We call on the United Nations, the United States, and all friends of religious liberty internationally to ask that the South Korean government, while continuing its efforts to contain the coronavirus crisis, takes appropriate measures to prevent intolerance, discrimination, and violence against members of Shincheonji.”
Seoul city authorities are said to have filed a murder complaint against the organisation’s spiritual leader, Lee Man-hee, 88, for failure to cooperate in efforts to contain the epidemic. Meanwhile, 1.2 million people have signed a petition calling for the church to be disbanded, according to the BBC.
Today Lee, who is revered as the “Promised Pastor”, issued an apology for the spread of the disease, the news agency AFP reports.
“I would like to offer my sincere apology to the people,” he said while wearing a mask.
“Although it was not intentional, many people have been infected,” he said, having twice bowed his head to the floor before reporters in Gapyeong. “I seek the forgiveness of the people.”
Insisting that the group has cooperated with the authorities, the tearful Lee said: “At churches, the leader of the church is like a parent and its members are the children.
“What parent would stand by and watch when there is such a scary disease that could even lead to death? Wouldn’t they try to fix it?”
Ji-il Tark, professor of church history at the Busan Presbyterian University in Kyungsangnam-Do, Korea, expressed scepticism at Lee’s motives, citing his “endless lies” to protect the sect. He said the message was less about an apology and aimed more at encouraging followers to cooperate to prevent the spread of infection.
“Since he has absolute power, he needed to ask the members to cooperate with the government’s effort,” he said.
A Shincheonji spokesman was questioned by the BBC over whether members had hidden their identities and thereby prevented the authorities from tracking them down and bringing the outbreak under control.
Kim Shin-Change said the organisation has tended to be secretive because of the criticism, discrimination and persecution it has traditionally faced.
“We have seen hate crimes and violation of human rights just because they are Shincheonji and we have even seen human rights violations that led to death. So for the first time we have revealed all of our information.” This, he said, included details of all church buildings and members.
“We were worried about releasing this kind of information because of the safety of our members but we believe right now the most important thing is to fully cooperate with the government.”
Massimo Introvigne, founder of CESNUR, said “of course” mistakes were made by the church “in the chaotic situation prevailing in Korea”, but that the discrimination predated the outbreak.
He told the Religion Media Centre: “Well before the virus, some were discriminated or fired once their membership in Shincheonji became known, particularly if their bosses were conservative Christians.”
Further information on our fact sheet
INFORM, an independent organisation giving information on new religious movements, based in London
Professor Park, Kwangsoo, North Dakota State University (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Professor Chae Young Kim, Sogang University, Seoul (email@example.com)
Ji-il Tark, professor of religion, Busan Presbyterian University, Gimhae City, South Korea (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Joseph Yi, associate professor of political science at Hanyang University, Seoul (email@example.com)