The rapid spread of the Coronavirus infections in South Korea with many cases found among members of a Christian denomination named the Shincheonji Church of Jesus is raising concerns that hatred and animosity targeted to the specific religious organization increase human rights violations.
The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC), an organization under the Ministry of Welfare and Health, stated that 123 additional cases have been confirmed with the total of 556 as of February 23. Many of confirmed cases were found in the city of Daegu and the North Gyeongsang Province.
South Korean prime minister Chung Sye-Kyun in his public statement asked citizens to cooperate with the government and avoid large-scale gatherings and the virus has low fatality rate and can be cured sufficiently by early isolation and treatment.
But the South Korean government did not mention prohibition of entry from China, which has constantly been raised by Korean Medical Association and opposition parties. For the online national petition to the executive office for the President of South Korea on the prohibition of entry, no official responses have been made by the government despite 760,000 supports. The South Korean public news agency, Yonhap News, introduced the possible relationship between the influx of 1,000 Chinese school trips to Daegu last month.
The Shincheonji Church, which has gained main attention for the virus proliferation and counteraction, released a statement on the same day that the church is in close cooperation with the health authorities, including offering the full list of members the Shincheonji Church in Daegu to the KCDC, as many members of the church have been exposed to the virus after the 31st confirmed case from a member of the church was found.
With the fear of increasing infection cases, major newspaper reports and social media posts in South Korea turn their eyes on the Shincheonji Church, many of which are speculative information. Some South Korean media owned by the conservative and fundamentalist Protestant groups that have denounced Shincheonji released an article saying that Shincheonji ordered its members to participate in other church services so that the Coronavirus is not solely the Shincheonji problem.
“As a scholar who has studied Schincheonji, I am concerned with the fact that international media that obviously know nothing about it have “discovered” this church overnight because of the coronavirus incidents in Korea, and have repeated inaccurate information they found on low-level Internet sources,” said Prof. Massimo Introvigne, a well-known Italian sociologist of religion and the managing director of CESNUR (Center for Studies on New Religions).
Part of anti-Shincheonji sentiment was also found in the South Korean government, as the KCDC press release in English on February 19 described the infection cases and classified Shincheonji as a “Korean cult.” President Moon Jae-In’s remarks and government statements in Korean language officially referred to Shincheonji as a “church.”
“Even of more concern is the fact that Shincheonji members who have contracted the virus, who are the victims in this story, are being treated unfairly by the Korean media and described as “cultists.” Worse still, some Shincheonji members have been insulted, discriminated and forced out of their jobs, as scapegoats for what has become a national and international hysteria about the virus,” added Prof. Introvine.
The negative attitude against the new Christian denomination is on the ground of decades-long confrontation with the conservative and fundamentalist Christian groups whose political activism raised controversies on corruption, which triggered breakaway from these groups and joining the new Christian movement led by Shincheonji.
“Turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to the illegal activities of the conservative church in South Korea, such as kidnapping and confinement for forced conversion, resulted in violence against the rapid increase of Shincheonji members. Intensifying the degree of indiscriminate hatred promoted by unfounded information in media and communication platforms poses a continuing, grave concern for the already gross violation of human rights against them,” said Willey Fautré, Director of Human Rights Without Frontiers (HWRF).