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 ongoing persecution in South Korea that Shincheonji Church, a minority religious organization, has been facing in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While governments around the world have responded in urgency to the pandemic with a variety of public health interventions, their decisions must still be held accountable against the well-being and human rights of all peoples, regardless of religion, race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, points out that “human dignity and rights need to be front and center” in the effort to contain and combat the spread of COVID-19.
Unfortunately, we are concerned to witness that in South Korea, the public health response appears to be discriminatory, targeted, and excessive against Shincheonji Church. It seems that COVID-19 has exposed and aggravated deeply-entrenched religious divisions in the country. As reported by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), “South Korea provides a vivid example of how public health emergencies can increase the risk to marginalized religious groups.”
As COVID-19 spread, the South Korean government began taking extreme measures in response to the pandemic. However, their response was not immediate from the beginning, and as the public became increasingly discontent with the government’s decision to refuse to impose a travel ban on China, Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae intensified the focus on Shincheonji Church’s role in the outbreak.
The content below briefly outlines the facts surrounding COVID-19 and Shincheonji:
- COVID-19 was introduced to South Korea from China. In fact, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the virus was already prevalent in the city of Daegu before the confirmation of Patient 31. However, Patient 31 became the known source for a massive outbreak connected to Shincheonji Church in Daegu when she attended several church functions before she was officially diagnosed with the disease.
- Before the diagnosis of Patient 31, South Korea had already received the virus through travelers from China. Prior to the mass outbreak of a Shincheonji Church in Daegu, there were many tourists from China that visited the city. The person with the sole authority to impose a travel ban was Minister Choo; she later publicly announced that she was praised by the Chinese Ambassador to South Korea for not imposing a ban on China. The government’s refusal to close the border to China contributed heavily to the outbreak.
- Nevertheless, after the confirmation of Patient 31, the government singled out Shincheonji Church in Daegu as the focus of its investigation. However, this method could have misled domestic resources away from identifying the root of the COVID-19 outbreak in the city.
- According to medical experts, the number of people who had COVID-19 in Daegu could be as high as 180,000 people, based on antibody testing on Daegu citizens who were asymptomatic. This potentially shows that the outbreak in Daegu may have had several origins, not just Patient 31 in Shincheonji Church in Daegu.
- In the face of growing public discontent that the government did not impose a travel restriction on China, Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae ordered the prosecution to investigate Shincheonji despite strong criticism from opposition lawmakers that the investigation against Shincheonji was excessive.
- Shincheonji Church has been scapegoated for the spread of COVID-19, and its leaders have been arrested for violating the Infectious Disease Prevention Act. As a result, prosecutors have arrested five officials of Shincheonji on the grounds that the list of congregation members submitted by Shincheonji was not complete. These accusations are challenged by the Vice Minister of Health, who confirmed that the list of private identification information gathered was not much different than that collected and checked by the government.
- Still, for this reason, they are trying to arrest Lee Man-hee, president of Shincheonji and all the leaders at the Shincheonji General Assembly. We recommend that the Korean government stop its targeted, discriminatory, and excessive investigation into Shincheonji, which is clearly intended to eliminate Shincheonji Church regardless of COVID-19.
Instead, the government ought to reaffirm its 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.
A democratic government remaining silent against the current treatment of this single group will set a dangerous global precedent for allowances of similar persecution, vitriol, and harassment against other minority religious groups.
We hope that the Korean government can intervene and quickly put an end to this discrimination.
 Colville, R., Laurence, J., Throssell, L. and Hurtado, M., 2020. OHCHR | COVID-19: Exceptional Measures Should Not Be Cover For Human Rights Abuses And Violations – Bachelet. Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.[online] ohchr.org.
 Weiner, S., Lavery, K. and Nardi, D., 16 March 2020. Factsheet On The Global Response To The Coronavirus (COVID-19) And The Impact On Religious Practice And Religious Freedom. United States Commission on the International Religious Freedom. [online] uscirf.gov.
 Shin, J., 22 Mar 2020. Quarantine authorities: “There were people who developed the disease before Shincheonji Patient 31 in Daegu”. YNA News. [online] yna.co.kr
 Kim, Y., 20 July 2020. “Mass infections in Daegu…there were a lot of hidden patients”. MBC News. [online] n.news.naver.com
 Lee, H., 4 Mar 2020. Jang Je-won, « Choo Mi-ae, it’s no business to meddle in » vs. « Watch your expression”. Newsis. [online] n.news.naver.com
Kim, H., 17 Mar 2020. Authorities analyze Shincheonji congregation list…”not much different from the original list”. Asiae. [online] asiae.co.kr
 Amended by 29 Oct 1987. The Constitution Of The Republic Of Korea. World Intellectual Property Organization. [online] wipo.int.