NGOs in association with the United Nations and religious communities in the globe are raising their voices on the need to correct inappropriate persecution and human rights violation against a religious group in South Korea named Shincheonji Church of Jesus.
11 NGOs including European Coordination of Associations and Individuals for Freedom of Conscience (CAP-LC) submitted a report for “annual report for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights” to the UN Secretary General at the 44th session in the UN Assembly Human Rights Council. The report is titled “scapegoating members of Shincheonji for COVID-19 in the Republic of Korea.”
By referring to the report from United States of America Commission of International Religious Freedom, the report to the UN said, “Shincheonji was suffering harassment from the South Korean government and society. Although some government measures appeared to be driven by legitimate public health concerns, others appeared to exaggerate the church’s role in the outbreak.”
“The government of Seoul locked down Shincheonji churches in the capital, and some mainline Protestant groups have accused the church of deliberately spreading the disease,” it continued.
The report stated, “The virus cannot be an excuse to violate human rights and religious liberty of hundreds of thousands of believers. Intolerance, violence, and discrimination against Shincheonji should be put to an end.”
Religious communities initiated to issue statements to advocate improvements in the unequal treatment against Shincheonji.
“The news of Chairman Lee and Shincheonji are being singled out and blamed for COVID-19 spread and sued is deeply concerning to all faith leaders who valued freedom of religion and the protection of human rights. This adverse action shall have chilling repercussions through the religious world,” said Mr. Sheikh Musa Drammeh, Chairman of Islamic Cultural Center of North America, Swami Vedanand Saraswati, Hindu Spiritual Head of Arya Samaj in South Africa, said “I implore the South Korean Government and other relevant authorities to immediately drop all charges and lawsuits and rather support the efforts of the Shincheonji Church in encouraging other recoverees to donate their plasma. Let us all follow the noble example set by the Chairman and encourage support towards the fight against COVID-19. “
Recently, Chairman Lee of Shincheonji Church of Jesus encouraged the members who recovered from the COVID-19 to voluntarily join in donation of plasma. Around 4,000 recovered members said they are willing to donate plasma for research on a new treatment.
He said that there have been political motives in persecution of Shincheonji Church of Jesus and HWPL (a peace NGO) by “using us (Shincheonji), the victims of COVID-19, as their scapegoat in order to hide their own faults.” He added, “Persecuting peace organizations, religious organizations, and violating human rights must be stopped in Korea.”
Korea Centers for Disease Control & Prevention said from 13th of July, blood plasma donated by 500 Shincheonji church members who have fully recovered from COVID-19 will be used for medicine manufacture after the clinical trials to develop treatments for the virus.
COVID-19: Twelve NGOs call upon UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion to address the scapegoating of a church in South Korea
As UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Ahmed Shaheed, solicits submissions from NGOs for the upcoming Report on the Elimination of Religious Intolerance and Discrimination and the Achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 16 (SDG 16), 12 European civil society organisations have co-signed a document denouncing the scapegoating of the Shincheonji Church in South Korea.
On 7 February 2020, a female member of Shincheonji from Daegu, South Korea, wash ospitalised after a car accident. While in the hospital, she presented with symptoms of what was identified as a common cold. She insisted that no one mentioned coronavirus as a possibility at that point in time, nor suggested she test for it. Only on 18 February, after her symptoms worsened, was she diagnosed with pneumonia, then tested for COVID-19. She tested positive and was designated as Patient 31.
However, before she had been diagnosed, she had attended several functions of Shincheonji. As a result, she became the origin of hundreds of new infections, most of them involving fellow members of Shincheonji.
Consequently, throughout this health crisis, fundamentalist Protestant Churches, media and politicians in South Korea have demonised the Shincheonji Church for allegedly being responsible for the spread of COVID-19 in the country.
A 30-page White Paper published by human rights activists, a lawyer, a journalist and a scholar in religious studies in April 2020 debunked a wide range of myths and biased and false stories about Shincheonji, but that has not stopped the stigmatisation campaign. The first reason for this scapegoating is religious tensions. With its 250,000 members, Shincheonji has been a fast-growing religious movement at the expense of the mainstream Protestant Churches.
Under the guise of fighting against “heresies”, they are desperately trying to recover and maintain their followers.
The second reason is political. The fundamentalist Protestant Churches are politically conservative, aligning closely with the parties opposed to President Moon. The weight of Protestant voters during elections in South Korea is significant. While campaigning for the legislative elections in spring, fundamentalist Protestant groups instrumentalised the COVID-19 crisis by accusing Shincheonji of deliberately spreading the virus in South Korea.
Consequently, they asked for the ban of Shincheonji Church and pressed local prosecutors to charge the 89-year-old leader of the Church, Lee Man-hee, with homicide by ‘willful negligence.’ Neutral observers of discrimination and intolerance based on religion or belief have denounced this hostile campaign of fundamentalist Presbyterian Churches attempting to get rid of a competitor in the free market of religions and beliefs.
In their submission, the civil society coalition refers to an assessment of the situation by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a bipartisan body whose members are appointed by the President of the United States and the congressional leaders of both political parties.
USCIRF confirmed that: “Shincheonji was suffering harassment from the South Korean government and society. Although some government measures appeared to be driven by legitimate public health concerns, others appeared to exaggerate the church’s role in the outbreak.”
USCIRF also received reports of individuals encountering discrimination at work and spousal abuse because of their affiliation with the Shincheonji Church.
The submission of the coalition of NGOs to the UN Special Rapporteur documents in detail the stigmatising dynamic triggered by various societal actors, their hidden agenda, and the negative impact this all has on the daily lives of members of the Shincheonji Church.