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August 28, 2020
His Excellency Moon Jae-In
President of the Republic of Korea
c/o Embassy of the Republic of Korea to the United States
2450 Massachusetts Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20008
Re: Religious Persecution in South Korea
We, the undersigned individuals and organizations, work to promote inalienable human rights and religious freedoms in various nations across the world. We are deeply troubled to see that the spread of the novel coronavirus has led to your government infringing on religious freedom in the Republic of Korea. This unjust treatment and persecution occurs even though many religious organizations have temporarily halted in-person worship services and complied with national health regulations. Specific religious communities have also come under fire by your government. In early July, it was announced that Protestant churches are prohibited from holding bible studies, choir practice, and other activities. They are also banned from singing and praying loudly and are required to keep digital records of active church participants. While these regulations appear to address health concerns regarding large gatherings, they fail to mention new coronavirus cases in secular contexts and have discriminatorily presented churches as responsible for the pandemic.
In a statement by the United Christian Churches of Korea (UCCK), they explained that what matters is not public gatherings, per se, but compliance with quarantine guidelines. They also pointed out that government efforts are contrary to the preventative efforts of many churches. The UCCK itself has taken steps to limit and prevent the spread of the virus by cancelling and postponing religious events and asking its churches to close or decrease the capacity of services.
Nevertheless, South Korean citizens report having received text messages pleading with them to not attend religious services. The municipal government in Guri even offered a cash reward to anyone who reports religious congregations holding events or ‘disobeying’ preventative measures. There have been reports that restrictions on public gatherings primarily target religious activities and worship and have not been similarly implemented for other non-religious gatherings, such as political party gatherings, entertainment venues, and public transportation, locations where person-to-person contact is extremely common, promoting the spread of the virus. Former Gyeonggi Provincial Governor Kim Moon-soo observed:
“If we’re talking about infectious disease spread, how about the subway? It is so crowded. Then they must halt the subway operations. 3.5 million people use the subway daily. When we go to church, we check our temperatures, we sanitize our hands, we write our contact information, of course we check to make sure we wear masks, and we sit apart a good distance. The service is short and then we go home. We cannot not take the subway. I use the subway multiple times a day. So everyone can carry on as usual. Only church services are prevented. Isn’t this clearly an oppression of the right to worship?”
In June, the Seoul government dispatched some 50 to 100 private individuals, not believed to be government officials, to demolish a local church and punish individuals gathered there to protest the government’s attempts to dismantle religious freedom. In a separate incident, worship at a Seoul Church was interrupted when the Prime Minister sent over 500 officials, including clinic workers, police officers, and local district authorities, to dissolve the gathering. In his YouTube video, former governor Moon-soo inquires, “We sat apart, but these officials stood right next to each other, not even social distancing. Is this really happening in [South Korea]?”
The month of August has ushered in a new wave of targeted blame towards South Korea’s churches for increasing coronavirus cases, despite surges in the disease also being traced back to various other events and locations: one fast food company location’s staff meeting, schools that had been holding in-person instruction and dormitory living, traditional shopping and tourist locations Dongdaemun Market and Namdaemun Market, and more. Your government has made few reproofs towards increasing sports crowd capacities, the outbreak at a Lotteria franchise at Jonggak subway station in Seoul, the 680,000 people that visited Busan’s beaches on August 15, or the numerous other examples of community spread in South Korea. Instead, your government has opted to place impersonal restrictions without severe condemnations on secular activities, dissimilar to your government’s strategy of explicit and harsh rebukes towards churches.
In addition, you have personally released statements targeting the political activities of members of Sarang Jeil Church in Seoul and their leader, a known critic of you and your administration. Under the guise of promoting health and safety during the epidemic, you have condemned Sarang Jeil Church members for their attendance at anti-government protests and demonstrations, which you deemed “a clear challenge to the national disease control and prevention system, and an unforgiveable act that threatens the lives of the people.” However, you have made no critical statements towards the other individuals and organizations that participated in the approximately 20,000-person protest. This seems to indicate that your actions are aimed at stifling this particular church’s political activism, rather than promoting public health and safety.
At the same time, national media outlets have also publicly scapegoated religious communities – in particular the Sarang Jeil Church congregation – in various news articles. These articles are heavily based on public statements by you and your administration. This focused attention and attributing of the outbreak to religious institutions and activities, which is only one way in which the virus might be spread, is troublesome. Fear-mongering and scapegoating of religious institutions and activities can only serve to endanger religious freedom and harm these institutions. Indeed, some now even claim that the outbreak is “caused by” religious activities and gatherings and others are calling for the detention of religious leaders. This has already drastically reduced church giving and approximately half of church leaders surveyed believe this will have an impact on church attendance even after the end of the pandemic.
In addition, on August 21, police raided the Sarang Jeil Church, ostensibly seeking information on church members. Despite having previously disclosed membership information, the search was apparently done without a warrant, lasting more than ten and a half hours, and involved “dragging” South Korean citizens from the Church. These religious leaders and their church members have only exercised their civil and political rights as guaranteed by South Korean and international law and do not deserve what amounts to political and religious persecution by your government.
Your government has in recent weeks placed restrictions on public gatherings and events, but has refrained from making public statements criticizing these secular activities, choosing instead to scapegoat Sarang Jeil Church and other Protestant communities as the primary vectors of the disease. This is in spite of the fact that it is estimated that COVID-19 could have been rapidly spreading through clubs, restaurants, gyms, factories, and apartment complexes since as early as May, and that events not attended by Sarang Jeil members – such as a protest by the Korean Confederation of Trade Union – have been linked to multiple COVID-19 cases. Moreover, as 40% of coronavirus transmissions in the capital are “untraceable”, it is inappropriate to publicly scorn – based solely on speculation – any one particular community for proliferating COVID-19 during a time already riddled with fear and distrust.
Your government’s reactionary discrimination and persecution has already become a blueprint for how the government may handle similar crises in the future: pinpointing and placing blame on specific groups rather than instituting general regulations for the entire population. Moreover, such scapegoating and persecution has the potential to discourage churches and religious communities from engaging in community service and aid distribution during future crises. Religious organizations are often at the forefront of humanitarian efforts and aid work. Blaming and shaming religious communities has the potential to disintegrate inter-faith alliances and partnerships that are essential to fight persecution and otherwise harm religious freedom.
In order to prevent a new pandemic of religious persecution from arising in South Korea, we make the following recommendations:
- Protect the freedoms procured under Articles 10, 11, 19, and 20 of the Constitution of the Republic of Korea and uphold international obligations with regards to protecting and ensuring freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.
- Collaborate and coordinate with the National Human Rights Commission of Korea when drafting regulations, programs, and plans that respond to national or international emergencies to ensure that they maintain the human rights of citizens.
- Publicly condemn and discourage the scapegoating and blaming of specific communities – including religious, ethnic, linguistic, sexual, etc. – during times of anxiety or uncertainty regarding the state of national and international affairs.
- When composing national, regional, or local regulations, refrain from explicitly addressing specific communities or groups within the population so as to ensure that such regulations are not discriminatory to minorities or other marginalized groups.
We write this letter out of our deepest concern for religious freedom everywhere and in hopes that your government will comply with its national and international obligations in this matter.
Respectfully submitted by the undersigned,
The North Korea Freedom Coalition
Angel’s Hands at the Ranch (Suffolk, VA)
Anglican Persecuted Church Network (Greensboro, NC)
Christian Freedom International
Christians in Crisis
Citizen Power Initiatives for China
Coordination des Associations et des Particuliers pour la Liberté de Conscience (Paris, France)
Council for Human Rights in North Korea (Canada)
Defense Forum Foundation
Democratic Leadership Foundation (Manchester, UK)
Institute on Religion and Democracy
International Christian Concern
International Conference of Evangelical Chaplain Endorsers (ICECE)
International Institute for Religious Freedom (IIRF) (Bonn, Germany)
Korea-U.S. National Prayer Breakfast (Washington, DC)
Korean Freedom Alliance
New Wineskins Missionary Network (Greensboro, NC)
PSALT NK (Englewood Cliffs, NJ)
Red Eagle Enterprises (Washington, DC)
Save Korea Alliance Canada
Tahrir Alnisa Foundation
The North Korea Network
World Distribution Federation