Prominent Scholars and Religious Leaders Raise Alarm Over Treatment of Shincheonji Church Founder
International Religious Scholars, journalists, lawyers human rights activities and religious leaders from around the world speak out against South Korea’s scapegoating of the Shincheonji church leadership after members test positive for Covid-19.
Amongst those raising concern are Sociologist of Religion and founder of the Center for Studies on New Religions, Professor Massimo Introvigne, the director of Human Rights Without Frontiers and honorary member of the Strategic Council of the Institute of Human rights and Prevention of Extremism and Xenophobia, Willy Fautré, Rosita Šorytė president of the International Observatory of Human Rights of Refugees, Alessandro Amicarelli, attorney, European Federation for Freedom of Belief and journalist Marco Respinti.
"We are scholars, human rights activists, reporters and lawyers, all with a substantial experience in the field of new religious movements. Some of us have studied the Korean Christian new religious movement known as Shincheonji Church of Jesus, the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony (in short, Shincheonji).
"We are concerned with the vast amount of inaccurate information circulating about Shincheonji and its involvement in the coronavirus crisis in South Korea. We have interviewed members of Shincheonji and Korean scholars, and examined documents from both the South Korean government and Shincheonji.
"We have prepared this white paper to help international organizations, the media and other concerned parties to better understand the situation. None of us is a member of Shincheonji, nor do we adhere to its theology. But theological criticism should not be confused with discrimination or violation of human rights."
Religious leaders and NGOs in association with the United Nations around the globe have raised their voices on the need to correct inappropriate persecution and human rights violations against Shincheonji Church of Jesus and its leadership.
Fourteen (14) religious leaders from the Christian, Islam, Hindu, the Church of Scientology, Hare Khrishna, and the Bruma Kumaris submitted video messages and open letters to the Korean Government urging the state to drop the charges and lawsuits against church leader, Man Hee Lee.
Spiritual leader, Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft of the African Jewish Congress wrote, “I implore you to rather channel your energy and effort in working to find the cure for this deadly virus, rather than to focus on direct anger at Chairman Lee who through his efforts is bringing unity, respect, tolerance and most importantly peace in the world.”
In a video recording Reverend Mathias Tsine, Secretary-General of Federation for Indigenous Churches of Zimbabwe stated, “We are peace messengers, we support his vision, we advocate for freedom of religion as contained in the UN Charter”. The Reverend also added, “Mr. Lee never used HWPL to pursue the interest of the church as falsely reported by critics bent on putting his personality into disrepute.”
Since the COVID-19 outbreak in February 2020, the Shincheonji congregation members have been singled out by the government as being responsible for a coronavirus outbreak in the country. Recent developments in an ongoing court case against the religious group have led to an $82 million lawsuit, confiscation of buildings, and arrests of some church officials.
National President of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at South Africa, Mansoor Zahid wrote, “I wonder how a government of the Republic of Korea try to persecute and ban the activity of such a peaceful person and his church, it is actually a disgrace to humanity and it is against religious freedom.”
In his statement Swami Vedanand Saraswati of Durban, South Africa, shared, “I firmly believe that the Chairman, a man of great integrity, has done and continues to do all in his power to aid in fighting against the COVID-19 virus, and assist the relevant authorities where possible.”
The leader and founder of Shincheonji, who has publicly apologized for the part that the church played in spreading the virus, has committed to doing everything to help and cooperate with authorities. As a token of goodwill, 4,000 Shincheonji members who have recovered from COVID-19 committed to donating their blood plasma for research for therapies to treat the novel virus. From the 13th to the 17th of July, 500 Shincheonji members will start the donations at the Gyeongbuk University Hospital in South Korea.
In a letter to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of South Korea, Miss Kang Kyung-Hwa, religious leaders individuals and organizations expressed their concern over the persecution of Shincheonji Church.
We reproduce the letter in full here:
Her Excellency Minister of Foreign Affairs,
Miss Kang Kyung-Hwa,
Ministry of Foreign Affairs,
Republic of Korea
We, the undersigned, are a group of individuals and organizations who collectively strive to promote religious freedom and the protection of human rights around the world. We are writing with concern about the persecution that a minority religious organization in South Korea, Shincheonji Church, is facing in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, noted that the pandemic has caused a flare-up in existing religious intolerance in many countries.
Furthermore, Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, expressed alarm at the clampdown on freedom of expression in Asia during COVID-19. She especially took notice of a disregard in upholding international principles of “legality, necessity, proportionality and precaution” over the service of a legitimate, “least intrusive” public health objective.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) highlights a particular case in South Korea regarding violation of human rights. According to the factsheet, South Korea provides a vivid example of how public health emergencies can increase the risk to marginalized religious groups:
Even before the recent coronavirus outbreak, members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus had reported facing pressure from mainstream Protestant groups, and in some cases being subjected to deprogramming . . . [During this recent coronavirus outbreak, issues have worsened.] 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. Local prosecutors are investigating criminal charges against Lee Man-hee for homicide by “willful negligence.” USCIRF has [also] received reports of individuals encountering discrimination at work and spousal abuse because of their affiliation with the church.
We understand that South Korea, like many other countries, is dealing with the struggle of the spread of the novel Coronavirus. As a result, many countries around the world have taken extreme measures to contain this virus. While the duty of the government is to protect its citizens, that protection should not infringe upon their fundamental human rights.
In an effort to present the facts surrounding Shincheonji Church and the novel Coronavirus, the following information has been compiled from news outlets globally:
On February 7, 2020, a female member of Shincheonji from Daegu, South Korea, was hospitalized after a car accident. While in the hospital, she had symptoms of what was identified as a common cold. She insists that nobody mentioned COVID-19 as a possibility to her, nor suggested a test.
On February 18, after her symptoms worsened, she was diagnosed with pneumonia, then tested for COVID-19 and found positive. She was designated as Patient 31. Prior to the diagnosis, she had attended several functions of Shincheonji. As a result, she became the origin of hundreds of new infection cases — most of them involving fellow Shincheonji congregation members.
A wing of conservative Protestant churches who have long persecuted Shincheonji because of its theology are exploiting the incident to falsely accuse the church of deliberately spreading the disease. The South Korean media has fed the narrative by circulating misleading reports about the church’s response to the pandemic.
On March 1, Seoul’s mayor Park Won-soon publicly posted on social media that he will be suing Shincheonji’s leaders “for murder, injury, and violation of prevention and management of infectious diseases.” This is despite the Vice-Minister of health publicly stating that Shincheonji was not to blame.
On March 2, Shincheonji’s leader, Lee Man-Hee, was sued for murder charges. He later issued a livestream public apology in a press conference, which involved him bowing to the viewers. Following this press conference, the city of Seoul withdrew the corporate license issued to Shincheonji, citing the violation of public interest.
On March 5, political strife over the decision to issue search warrants to Shincheonij’s offices. Minister of Justice, Choo Mae-In applied pressure to issue warrants while the chief prosecutor, Yoon Seok-Youl, remained apprehensive.
On March 6, the mayor of Daegu rejected a donation of 10 billion won from Shincheonji Church, who offered the donation as a means to support the spread of the virus.
Three months later, on June 23, the city of Daegu filed a civil lawsuit against Shincheonji for 100 billion won (~$82.75 million). The amount is equivalent to two-thirds of Daegu’s overall COVID-19 expenditures. The reasoning of the financial compensation is for damages regarding the hindrance of lockdown effort.
On June 27, the director of the Central Defense Protection Headquarters of South Korea, Kwon Jun-Wook, said there is no connection between the outbreak at Shincheonji Church and the outbreak in Chung-Nam Hospital in Qingdao.
On July 6, the Suwon District Prosecutors’ Office requested arrest warrants for five Shincheonji leaders for interfering with public health measures and obstruction of justice.
On July 8, 3 Shincheonji officials were arrested for hindering virus control. Accused of deleting 100 members' names from the visitor log as they had requested their personal details not be submitted to authorities.
Before the coronavirus outbreak, the church suffered from intense persecution for its peculiar theology. From 2003 to 2017, there were 1,287 reported incidents of coercive conversion victims. Shincheonji believers were not only being subjected to bullying and torment in schools, colleges and workplaces, but also they were being persecuted in the form of forced abductions, physical abuse and deprogramming incidents — one of which has led to recognition for the death of a congregation member. In summary, Shincheonji congregation members are suffering from evident violations of human rights, and the organization itself is facing unjustified charges from the South Korean government for manslaughter. Theological differences should not be a basis for violence and discrimination.
In spite of the persecution Shincheonji is undergoing, Shincheonji has earnestly tried to comply with the requests of local and national authorities. When South Korean President Moon Jae-In stated that the government needed a full list of members of Shincheonji, the church provided 212,000 names and addresses of its congregation members according to USCIRF. Furthermore, Mr. Lee also announced that over 4,000 members of Shincheonji who fully recovered from the virus have pledged to donate their plasma for medical research purposes. Their plasma contains the much-needed antibodies that can help accelerate the race to find a vaccine, and the contribution is worth millions of dollars.
We urge you as the Minister of Foreign Affairs to reaffirm South Korea’s commitment to protect the rights of its citizens and uphold the promises in the South Korean Constitution. As guaranteed in articles 10, 11 and 20 of the South Korean Constitution,
[Article 10] All citizens shall be assured of humanity dignity and worth and have the right to pursue happiness. It shall be the duty of the State to confirm and guarantee the fundamental and inviolable human rights of the individual.
[Article 11] All citizens shall be equal before the law, and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic, social, or cultural life on account of sex, religion, or social status.
[Article 20] (1) All citizens shall enjoy freedom of religion. (2) No state religion shall be recognized, and religion and state shall be separated.
We are also concerned that remaining silent against the current treatment of this single group will set a dangerous precedent in the country for similar persecution, vitriol, and harassment against other minority religious groups.
Thank you for your time and consideration. We look forward to communicating with you in the near future. Please be well and stay safe.
Director, North America
Human Rights Association for the Victims of Coercive Conversion
Director, Washington DC Office
Alliance of Religions
Founder and President
Citizen Power Initiatives fro China
Red Eagle Enterprises
Humanitarian Programs Director
Church of Scientology International
Revealing Light Ministries
Coordination des Associations et des Particuliers pour la Liberte de Conscience
All Pro Pastors
Chief Executive Officer
The International Multi-Faith Coalition (I.M.F.C.)
East Turkistan National Awakening Movement
Vital Voices Global Partnership
Sliwa Public Relations
Interim Executive Director and General Counsel
Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC)
Human Rights Action Center