We, the undersigned, having participated in the Summit on South Korea: COVID-19 and Human Rights Abuses hosted by the Accra Human Rights Forum International (AHRFI) from September 10 to 11, 2020, hereby and collectively urge that all oppression and discrimination against any minority religious group anywhere across the world should not be tolerated, especially in this critical time of the COVID-19 pandemic.
We particularly want to highlight events that have taken place in South Korea targeted at the Shincheonji Church, a minority religious group in the Asian country during this period of COVID-19.
Factual events of oppression faced by Shincheonji Church in South Korea:
When the 31st patient (a.k.a. Patient 31) was confirmed in a province called Daegu, there was a mass infection in Shincheonji Daegu Church as the patient attended services there. This led to more than 4,000 congregants of the church getting infected with the coronavirus. The church was consequently blamed for the spread of COVID-19 in South Korea, and Patient 31 was called to be the “superspreader.”
Daegu city proclaimed the year 2020 to be a “Daegu-Gyeongbuk Tourist Year” and welcomed thousands of Chinese tourists since the end of January this year, without any restrictions despite the local citizens’ concern on the spread of the coronavirus.
Global health experts and countries recognized that COVID-19 began from China, and any secondary infections come from China.
The Korean Medical Association (KMA) had advised the South Korean government multiple times in January to block entries from China. KMA announced that once locations are appropriately disinfected and sanitized, they are safe for use without the risk of infection.
Shincheonji ordered all churches (branches) across South Korea to prohibit entries to church from January 26 to February 7, 2020, in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus. The church followed the advices of the government and medical institutions, and carried our religious activities under the protocols set by the authorities.
On February 12, 2020, President Moon Jae-in urged the citizens to not be anxious, but to carry on with everyone’s daily routines. The next day, he announced that the quarantine management has entered a stable stage, and that COVID-19 will be terminated before long.
Following the protocols set by the quarantine experts and the government, Shincheonji congregants carried out their daily religious activities until Patient 31 was confirmed with COVID-19 on February 18, 2020. As Patient 31 had meetings and services with many other congregants in the church premises prior to being confirmed with the virus, successive infection followed heavily among the Shincheonji congregants in Daegu.
According to Korea Centers for Disease Control (KCDC), Patient 31 was a case of a secondary infection. The former director of KCDC also explained that at least 180,000 undiagnosed missing cases were expected, but were not discovered as they were not tested, unlike the Shincheonji Daegu church congregants whom were tested through total inspection.
More than 5,000 Shincheonji congregants have become victims of COVID-19.
While the mass outbreak of infections in Cheongdo Daenam Hospital occurred, there were accusations that it was related to Shincheonji. However, a difference in genetic traits of the virus was found through medical analysis. On June 27 the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) announced that there is no correlation between the mass infection of Cheongdo Daenam Hospital and of Shincheonji.
A mass outbreak that occurred in regions of Daejeon and Gwangju, and Shincheonji was criticized to be the one to spread the coronavirus. However, KCDC announced publicly on July 6 that it is not true as the virus group was different to the mass infection of Shincheonji.
To respond to the mass outbreak of COVID-19 in Shincheonji, the government took measures to have the church submit a list of its members both in Korea and abroad, as well as their properties across the nation. Shincheonji cooperated with the health authorities by submitting the requested information. However, Shincheonji was criticized that it was not cooperating, and since then its congregants have become the target of collective hatred, leading to more than 5,500 cases of human rights violations, including workplace bullying, persecution, discrimination and stigmatization.
On February 18, 2020, upon receiving the news of Patient 31, Shincheonji voluntarily closed down all buildings across the nation and prohibited all church activities. That same day, it provided the list of members who attended the service together with Patient 31 to the Daegu city officials. The church also announced the addresses of all affiliated buildings and properties across the nation.
Shincheonji provided the personal information of congregants living abroad or in locations unrelated to the infections in South Korea upon receiving the request to do so, although the Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act approves of collecting personal data about “infectious patients and persons of concern for the infection.”
On March 2, 2020, during a press conference by Shincheonji, the Chairman of Shincheonji Church (Mr. Man-hee Lee) apologized in regards to Patient 31 and the mass infection of the church congregants, and expressed his sincere appreciation to the government for its efforts on COVID-19 measures and treatment.
When it was alleged that the data submitted by Shincheonji had omissions and discrepancies, the government raided the headquarters and acquired the lists of all congregants, trainees, church properties, list of congregants who attended service in January and February, and the attendance records of missionary centers.
Nevertheless, it was confirmed by the Prosecutor’s office officially that the list submitted by Shincheonji matched the actual list of Shincheonji members.
It is important to note that mass infection did not occur only at Shincheonji Church, but also in various other places and organizations in South Korea (eg. Clubs in Itaewon, Coupang logistics center, etc.).
Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon asserted that Shincheonji is the source of COVID-19 and the Chairman has committed homicide.
At the press conferences held in February, KMA explained that the cause of the mass infection of COVID-19 is not Shincheonji, but has got to do with the government’s failure of its first phase of quarantine measures in preventing community transmissions. KMA emphasized that Shincheonji congregants who were infected with the coronavirus were also patients, who did not intentionally spread the virus, as well as citizens of Korea who should be equally treated as others.
The health authorities of South Korea concluded that there were infected patients even before Patient 31, who is also a secondary infected patient. It was proved that Patient 31 was not the first one to spread the coronavirus in Daegu city.
The health authorities also announced that the mass infection of Shincheonji happened as a result of the government’s failure of preemptive quarantine measures and allowing Chinese tourists into Daegu city.
Since April 6, 2020, the spread of COVID-19 among Shincheonji has stabilized. Yet, forced and excessive investigations, including a large-scale tax audit, were conducted repeatedly, and its leaders were interrogated and arrested.
On April 24, 2020, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon ordered to cancel the corporate registration of Heavenly Culture, World Peace, Restoration of Light (HWPL), a non-governmental, non-profit, peace organization, claiming that Shincheonji and HWPL are affiliated. However, it is a well-known fact in the international community that HWPL is not a religious organization nor does it conduct religious activities. On May 29, of which after HWPL filed litigation, the court temporarily suspended the cancellation of its corporate registration.
On April 28, 2020, announcement was made to conduct a tax audit on Shincheonji. About 200 tax investigators from all departments of the National Tax Service were sent to conduct the investigation. This was known to be the largest-scale investigation on a religious organization.
On May 22, search and seizure on Shincheonji was conducted for more than 9 hours.
On July 8, 2020, three Shincheonji leaders were arrested on the allegation that they have obstructed the government’s efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19. On July 17, 2020, the Chairman of Shincheonji was summoned for questioning on the same allegation.
On August 1, Chairman Man-hee Lee of Shincheonji, at age 89, was arrested on charge of obstructing the government’s COVID-19 quarantine efforts, despite his chronic condition and his age. Allegations were filed against Chairman Lee on the following:
Allegation on providing false or incomplete lists: Some members had explicitly requested their church leaders not to include their names for fear of persecution, which is understandable as Shincheonji is minority religious group not welcomed by the society. The Daegu church started by giving the authorities a partial list, waiting for a solution by the headquarters. They later included the names of the recalcitrant members in the list. The fact that some details were not entirely accurate due to clerical and other unavoidable mistakes, but there was no intent to commit a crime.
Allegation on embezzling the church fund in the process of constructing the “Peace Palace”: Shincheonji transferred the church fund to Chairman Lee’s individual account, as it was impossible to proceed with the construction in the name of Shincheonji. Reimbursement was already done before this became a troubling matter to the church. Shincheonji was not aware of the tax laws, and made a mistake of carelessly transacting the funds to individual accounts. The church did recognize its mistakes, but express no intent of embezzlement as all reimbursement has already been made, as well as claiming that the building itself was used for events organized by the church.
Allegation on holding a large scale Peace Summit at venues without the express permission of the local government: Officials in charge of the venue arbitrarily cancelled the booking only two days to the summit after they were pressurized by the fundamentalist Protestants who protested against the summit. However, as it seemed unreasonable, the officials implicitly cooperated by allowing the summit to be held at the venue.
Shincheonji Church continued cooperating with the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) in the donations of blood plasma for the development of a COVID-19 treatment.
On June 23, 2020, about 4,000 recovered patients from Shincheonji Daegu church consented to voluntarily donate their blood plasma to give back to the society for the treatment they received. The 1st donation was carried out from July 13 to 17, 2020, with the participation of 623 congregants, and the 2nd donation was held from August 27 to September 4, 2020, with the participation of 1,100 of them.
Shincheonji has pronounced to closely cooperate with Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) do continuously donate their blood plasma for the development of a treatment.
Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention publicly expressed their appreciation to Shincheonji for their donation and active support.
With the above factual explanation of the above case, it is to our concern that there are still members of the Shincheonji church who are abused with hate speech and discrimination. As a country that has signed and ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we call on the South Korean government to uphold the articles within that charter.
According to Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
While the “General Comment 22” identifies that limitations are permitted if it’s necessary to protect public health, Article 18 is to be strictly interpreted as:
The Committee observes that paragraph 3 of article 18 is to be strictly interpreted: restrictions are not allowed on grounds not specified there, even if they would be allowed as restrictions to other rights protected in the Covenant, such as national security. Limitations may be applied only for those purposes for which they were prescribed and must be directly related and proportionate to the specific need on which they are predicated. Restrictions may not be imposed for discriminatory purposes or applied in a discriminatory manner.
Articles 10, 11 and 20 of the Constitution of South Korea also state that:
All citizens shall be assured of human worth and dignity and have the right to pursuit of happiness. It shall be the duty of the State to confirm and guarantee the fundamental and inviolable human rights of individuals.
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.
(1) All citizens shall enjoy freedom of religion.
(2) No state religion shall be recognized, and religion and state shall be separated.
We collectively call on the South Korean government to reaffirm the country’s Constitution and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, and to accord the same protection to its citizens without fear or favour at all times. The discrimination against the Shincheonji Church and its members specifically must be put to an end immediately. Freedom of religion must be practiced in any democratic country and South Korea should not be exempted from that.
While containing the COVID-19 pandemic, we, as global citizens, do hereby pledge our undying commitment to fight discrimination and human rights abuses in whichever shape or form, for our collective benefit.
LIST OF SIGNATORIES
AMBASSADOR MARTIN UHOIMOBHI, FORMER PRESIDENT, UNITED NATIONS HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, PAN AFRICAN INSTITUTE FOR GLOBAL AFFAIRS AND STRATEGY (PAIGAS), NIGERIA
ISAAC KWAME BATUN, DIRECTOR OF CAMPAIGN AND ADVOCACY
ACCRA HUMAN RIGHTS FORUM INTERNATIONAL (AHRFI), ACCRA – GHANA
AMBASSADOR BRIDGET DAKYES, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
WOMEN AND GIRLCHILD RESCUE AND DEVELOPMENT INITIATIVE (WGRDI), NIGERIA
COMFORT ATTAH, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
ASSH FOUNDATION (ASHHF), ACCRA – GHANA
MS OPEYEMI MARCELLINA ADERINTO, COUNTRY DIRECTOR
AFRICAN YOUTH INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT FOUNDATION, NIGERIA
ALBARKA HARUNA, PROJECT COORDINATOR
COMMUNITY ADVOCATE FOR SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT (CAFSUD), NIGERIA
COMRADE KINGSLEY OIBOH, CONVENER
ACCESS TO HUMAN RIGHT AND JUSTICE INITIATIVE, NIGERIA
MARTINS OKORONKWO, PRESIDENT/COORDINATOR
VISIONS FOR NIGERIA FOUNDATION, ABUJA – NIGERIA
DR GEORGE AGYEI, CHAIRMAN OF EXECUTIVE COUNCIL
LEANITA INTERNATIONAL, TARKWA – GHANA
OYEBISI OLUSEYI, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
NIGERIA NETWORK OF NGOS, NIGERIA
JOSEPH KOBLA WEMAKOR, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
HUMAN RIGHTS REPORTERS GHANA (HRRG), ACCRA – GHANA
KORSI SENYO, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
AFRICA CENTRE FOR PEACE BUILDING, ACCRA – GHANA
FRANKLIN OLONIJU, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
LIFE AND PEACE DEVELOPMENT ORGANISATION (LAPDO), NIGERIA