By Tim Wyatt
A religious movement Shincheonji Church of Jesus is being sued for £67 million by a South Korean city for allegedly failing to stop a mass outbreak of Covid-19.
The high-profile group, which is often disparaged by its critics as a cult, was at the heart of South Korea’s first cases of coronavirus earlier this year.
One of its members in the city of Daegu travelled to Wuhan, caught the virus, and then brought it back to Daegu, eventually infecting hundreds. The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate at least 5,200 cases in South Korea (almost half the 12,400 total for the whole country) can be linked to the church.
Daegu, South Korea’s fourth-largest city, with 2.5 million inhabitants, is suing Shincheonji for 100 billion won, alleging that it broke the city’s quarantine rules and prevented the authorities from being able to clamp down on the outbreak.
This figure amounts to more than two-thirds of the city’s total spending on the coronavirus crisis.
Daegu officials argue that Shincheonji did not properly assist them with lists of members, quarantine rules or with testing when they found out the city’s first Covid-19 patient was part of the church.
The lawsuit is meant to “soothe the damaged hearts of Daegu citizens who suffered from Covid-19 and to hold Shincheonji accountable,” said Jung Hae-yong, of the city’s legal team, according to the Yonhap news agency.
“We expect to hold the church legally liable and get reimbursed for the spending on quarantine works and medical treatments for the infectious disease.”
This is not the first time municipal authorities have launched lawsuits against the movement. The city of Seoul, South Korea’s capital, has also sued for £130,000 damages and even reported the leadership of the secretive group to the local prosecutor’s office for “for murder, injury and violation of prevention and management of infectious diseases”.
Tark Ji-il, a professor of religion at Busan Presbyterian University and an expert on the sect, said he expected the church’s leadership to fight back. “If they [co-operate with the authorities], the church possibly loses its control of its members so that the church will choose to resist,” he suggested.
“Besides, according to its doctrine, it’s almost impossible for them to admit they have done wrong things or caused a serious problem.”
According to the latest financial statements, Shincheonji’s total assets amounted to 500 billion won (£554 million), which meant losing the lawsuit would result in an enormous blow to their accounts, he added.
“They will proceed with the lawsuit and will do whatever they can do. The church needs money to maintain the church, to control its members, and to prevent the division of its organisation.”
But other academics have raised the alarm and warned that South Korea is unfairly blaming an unpopular and misunderstood religious organisation for the whole country’s coronavirus problem.
Professor Massimo Introvigne, who runs the Centre for Studies on New Religions and has long studied Shincheonji, said he understood the group had already instructed lawyers to resist the Daegu accusations.
“There have been lawsuits against Shincheonji in the past. When it has not won them, requests for billions have been reduced to a few thousand dollars,” he noted.
“This does not mean that I am not concerned by the effort to eradicate Shincheonji using the virus as an opportunity, which I regard as a gross violation of religious liberty. Most Shincheonji churches in South Korea have been closed for alleged violations of either health, tax, or zoning, and there is no indication they will ever be allowed to reopen except if Shincheonji wins some lawsuits.”
Professor Introvigne said he believed numerous parts of the South Korean establishment, including more mainstream conservative Christian churches, were keen to see the sect “eradicated”.
Joseph Yi, an associate professor of political science at Hanyang University in Seoul, said South Korea had tied its suppression of Covid-19 to a nationalist and politicised ideology. Becoming infected with the virus “implied immoral behaviours that defied the national interest, especially when linked to unconventional, religious and sexual minorities”, he added.
What he described as “state persecution” of Shincheonji was an outworking of “pandemic nationalism”, where South Korea proudly touted its success in defeating Covid-19 around the world.
“South Korean politicians, especially [in the] ruling party, have framed Shincheonji as a traitor to the Korean nation and has thus indirectly encouraged public prejudice and persecution, including spousal abuse of Shincheonji members,” Professor Yi claimed.
“The Daegu lawsuit will only inflame public prejudice and alienate Shincheonji members, and other infected patients, from government authorities.”
South Korea must avoid the mistakes made by China, he said, whose persecution of religious sects had largely driven them underground and further alienated them from wider society. “Respecting religious freedom is the liberal-principled and pragmatic approach to help patients and contain the epidemic,” Professor Yi added.
But Professor Tark said the church had partly brought this upon themselves. “The SCJ kept telling lies to protect its members and organisation for its sake so that the virus spread rapidly and widely, and more seriously, it has been disclosed that their lies are based on their doctrine in which the church justifies telling lies and teaches its members to follow the doctrine.
“Now, the SCJ church seems to be isolated by not only the church but also the society.”