Two leaders of different, large South Korean religious groups show a completely opposite reaction to virus control as their congregation members fall ill with COVID-19.
SEOUL, KOREA, August 25, 2020 /24-7PressRelease/ — South Korea has recently been in the global spotlight in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic when in early 2020 it was one of the first countries after China to have a regional outbreak. After this initial outbreak, the rate of infection dropped significantly because of the country’s “trace, test and treat” approach to control the spread of the virus. These measures worked for a short time, but South Korea now believes it is on the brink of another COVID-19 crisis. According to the Director of the KCDC, the current situation in the country can be described as “an initial stage of a large-scale transmission.”
With the relatively fast control of the first outbreak, questions have been raised about the cause of this second rise in cases that could lead to a more serious impact than the first. Authorities claim that this second cluster of 400 infections has been mainly attributed to Sarang Jeil Church, led by far-right activist Jeon Kwang-hoon. This kind of outbreak is not the first of its kind, however; the initial outbreak in February leading to 5,000 COVID-19 cases was mainly attributed to a separate religious group, Shincheonji Church of Jesus, led by 89-year-old peace activist Chairman Man Hee Lee. Although these two religious leaders were both faced with the same daunting problem of COVID-19 entering and spreading inside their church, they have reacted quite differently and their efforts to control the virus within their respective churches has been paradoxical.
The initial outbreak in Shincheonji Church of Jesus began in early February when asymptomatic “Patient 31” attended a worship service in Daegu and unknowingly spread the virus to other SCJ members. Immediately after the patient was confirmed positive for the virus, Chairman Lee reportedly ordered that all in-person services and meetings be suspended to minimize virus transmission. Korean officials then requested a list of names and contact information of all church members, even those of non-infected and abroad churches. SCJ Church provided these lists and asked all members to cooperate with the government, but authorities claimed that they were falsified and ordered a raid of the church headquarters. In response, Chairman Lee hosted a press conference to apologize for the outbreak. He knelt on the ground in front of the press and stated, “Although it was not intentional, many people have been infected… We made our utmost efforts but were unable to prevent it all.” In an effort to reconcile the damage, the Chairman also encouraged SCJ members who had recovered from the virus to donate badly needed plasma to help develop treatments or a vaccine. Officials at Korea’s Green Cross commented that the donation given by 500 recovered SCJ members has been “invaluable” in the development of a cure and these donations are already being used in clinical trials.
Despite this, Chairman Lee was arrested on August 1st on claims that the church did not cooperate with authorities and violated the Infectious Disease Control Act by allegedly providing false lists of members. The church quickly responded by explaining in an interview with BBC news: “As you know, Shincheonji is labeled as a cult within Korea… Because of this label we are often discriminated against.” The spokesperson added, “We were worried about releasing this kind of information because of the safety of our members… We have seen hate crimes and violation of human rights, just because they are Shincheonji [members] and we’ve even seen human rights violations that led to death.” SCJ claims that members were afraid of being “outed” by the government as SCJ members to avoid persecution by their families. Reports have also stated that portions of these lists were leaked, revealing people as members of Shincheonji and causing people to lose their jobs, be ostracized by their families, or even be evicted by their landlords. The investigation of allegations against SCJ Church and Chairman Lee is ongoing, and the Korean court has required that Chairman Lee be detained in the Suwon Detention Center until trial in fears of destruction of evidence. SCJ claims that holding a non-guilty person of his age in jail is unprecedented in the country’s justice system.
Jeon Kwang-hoon, Head Pastor of Sarang Jeil church in Seoul, had a very different approach to managing the outbreak in his church. Korean officials have urged people in Seoul and neighboring provinces (home to about 25 million people) to stay home at all possible due to the resurgence of the virus. However, Pastor Jeon has already received two separate complaints from the health ministry and the Seoul City government for allegedly disrupting official efforts to contain the virus. Reports state that Jeon ignored orders to self-isolate, discouraged worshipers from getting tested, and under-reported the church’s membership to avoid more quarantining. Jeon also encouraged members to continue attending in-person worship services instead of participating online. The Vice health minister in Korea claimed that Sarang Jeil church provided inaccurate lists of its 4,000 members, and more than 500 members who authorities urge to isolate remain unaccounted for. Pastor Jeon himself and his wife’s secretary are even among the 400 positive cases in the church.
To make matters worse, Pastor Jeon (a far-right activist) has claimed the virus to be a political issue and has led protests against the liberal Korean President’s recommendation of quarantine. Reports claim that Jeon has aligned with conservative politicians and lead people to elect conservative candidates in public campaign gatherings, a violation of state election laws. On August 15th, Liberation Day in Korea, Jeon and his wife’s secretary led a protest in Gwanghwamin Square and took off their masks to give speeches to a large crowd. Jeon also harbors a conspiracy theory which claims that the reason he contracted COVID-19 was due to “virus terror” and claimed that authorities wanted to gather church members and falsely report all of their tests as positive. The Vice health minister dismissed the rumors and said “That’s impossible… We can’t fabricate test results.” The minister added that “we’re very concerned” about this new outbreak and encourages all church members and Pastor Jeon to quarantine as soon as possible, although they have been reluctant to cooperate and caused frustration among health and government authorities.
The contrast in the reaction of these two religious leaders has caused a stir. A former professor from Dongyang University stated that the Sarang church people “are more than Shincheonji. Compared to their craziness, Shincheonji seems to be an angel.” Others are criticizing that the COVID-19 outbreak has turned into a political issue by Pastor Jeon instead of a health issue. Many Koreans are calling for the unification of the country regardless of political party to fight the virus.
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