On July 20, a webinar titled “COVID-19 and Religious Freedom: Scapegoating Shincheonji in South Korea”, addressed the recent issues of aggressive attack from politically powerful conservative and fundamentalist Protestant churches in the country on a newly-established, fast-growing Christian denomination named ‘Shincheonji (New Heaven and New Earth) Church of Jesus’ founded in 1984. International scholars were joined by activists, including student representatives of University of South Florida (USF), to discuss the harsh aggressions toward this group.
The new Christian movement by Shincheonji has become a target because “conservative and fundamentalist protestants who see Shincheonji as a competitor and want to destroy it,” said Massimo Introvigne as an Italian sociologist of religion who studied Shincheonji before and after the COVID-19 pandemic and published the first account of the religious group in English.
Alessandro Amicarelli, Chairman European Federation for Freedom of Belief, pointed out that the South Korean authorities problematized Shincheonji as a cause of the COVID-19 crisis to shut down the church.
Ciaran Burke, Associate Professor in University of Derby, expressed concerns over “collecting personal information of 300,000 domestic and international Shincheonji members by the government which is a possible violation of international agreement, especially the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) South Korea ratified in 1990.” Scholars from universities around the world joined in solidarity to discuss this violation, including three students from University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida.
“In Tampa, we’ve been very lucky to be receiving support during the COVID-19 pandemic, but there are groups like Shincheonji who are in huge need of aid but instead are being groundlessly blamed. This is a time when we should all be working together. We have to stand up for one another,” a USF student voiced.
The prosecution initiated investigation of Shincheonji leaders including founder Man Hee Lee for his alleged role in the widespread of the COVID-19. Three Shincheonji officials were arrested on July 8 on a charge of playing a role in the major outbreak at its early stage by “(submitting) inaccurate list of members.”
A recent statement issued by “families of the deceased and victims of COVID-19” wrote that “the thousands of the damage and deaths of Koreans reflect the failure of initial response to contain the virus by the government.” It added that the Minister of Justice Choo Mi-ae “allowed COVID-19 patients from China to enter Korea, leading to a widespread outbreak of the virus across the country, which resulted in the deaths of the Korean people.” It also stated that she is trying to avoid her responsibility for the damage by “giving direct orders to prosecutors for a raid and arrests against Shincheonji Church”.
A South Korean TV network, MBC reported that a recently conducted screening at Daegu furthers the failure of the government’s initial response to contain the virus. The report inferred that at least 180,000 of the 2.4 million people in Daegu were infected with the COVID-19, 27 times to the official 6,800 confirmed cases. With a mere 5,000 cases out of a total of 180,000 potential infections stemming from Shincheonji Church, the report alludes to the reality that the minority church has been a biased target through the COVID-19 pandemic since late February. Panelists concluded the webinar seeking further investigation from authorities in order to exonerate Shincheonji from the statistically inaccurate blame it has received.