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, was hospitalised 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.
The Author, Willy Fautré is the Director of Human Rights Without Frontiers