As the scandal unfolds, many in the country will be forgiven for thinking, “We’ve been here before”.
Now history seems to be repeating itself with the Sarang Jeil Church in Seoul. It is the most recent clash between a religious group and President Moon Jae-in’s government trying to contain the coronavirus outbreak in South Korea while fighting allegations of restricting religious freedom.
South Korea reported 288 new cases of the virus on Thursday, most of which were in Seoul and the surrounding Gyeonggi province. The outbreak has been linked to the Sarang Jeil Church, which has reported hundreds of positive cases among its members, about 400 of which have not yet been tracked by authorities.
On Tuesday, Moon̵
More than 1,500 cases have been reported across the country since the last outbreak began on Aug. 12. South Korean Health Minister Park Neung-hoo has warned that the current outbreak could be massive and cause serious damage if not handled properly.
Police in the capital have been tasked with identifying and tracking down people associated with the church. The government recognizes the importance of containing the spread and enabling tracing of contacts. Health officials are calling on the entire congregation that attended church services between July 27 and August 13 to be tested and self-quarantined.
The Seoul government said it will seek damages against the Sarang-jeil Church and its pastor Jun Kwang-hoon for wasting administrative resources and money by failing to comply. He is already being prosecuted for allegedly violating quarantine and obstructing contact tracing.
Jun’s legal team has denied claims that the Church obstructed contact tracing by hiding a list of its members.
Attorney Kang Yeon-jae told reporters Monday, “Unless the church has a locked gate that people can enter by just swiping their ID, the church cannot have a perfect list of all the many people who have come.”
Sarang-jeil has announced that it will file a criminal complaint against Minister of Health Park and the acting mayor of Seoul Seo Jeong-hyup for disseminating false information and defamation.
And Jun has shown defiant despite the official pressure. On Saturday he attended a mass anti-government rally in Seoul. Police had discouraged large gatherings for fear of infection, but that did not prevent thousands of people from attending.
Jun gave a speech at the rally and removed his face mask before addressing the crowd.
“This afternoon members of the town hall came to our church, they saw me,” he said. “I don’t have a fever. I have no symptoms. But they told me to quarantine right before this event.”
Jun tested positive for the virus on Monday, Seongbuk district office said, raising concerns that the protest could lead to a new group of infections. At a press conference that day, his legal team said he had received a quarantine request after returning from the rally.
While Jun and his church have found sympathy with opponents of President Moon and conservative religious groups, his actions, along with photos of him sitting on the back of an ambulance after testing positive and wearing his mask like a chin strap, have sparked anger others online.
Vice Health Minister Kim Ganglip said Tuesday this week could mark a “critical turning point” in whether the Seoul cluster becomes a nationwide epidemic.
Professor Park Kwang-soo is director of the Research Center for Religions at Wonkwang University. He believes some worshipers may not understand the real dangers of the coronavirus.
“While they believe in God as a loving God, they believe more in God as a healer,” he said. “They generally believe that belief can solve the problem of disease.”
This is not Jun’s first run into the law. Earlier this year, the pastor was arrested for campaigning illegally before parliamentary elections, a charge he denies. He is currently on bail as the trial continues.
Underlying the recent controversy is the widespread suspicion many conservative religious groups have of President Moon, a liberal who has faced growing right-wing opposition in recent months.
“Some more conservative churches tend to have the lunar government oppose religious freedom,” said Professor Tark Ji-il of Busan Presbyterian University, adding that there has been “tension and conflict” between many churches and the authorities.
Up until that point, the government has refrained from banning religious gatherings nationwide and has instead recommended online services to prevent the virus from spreading. Those who worship in person must practice social distancing and wear face masks.
This did not stop Moon’s opponents from claiming he was against religion and accusing him of being a communist for his involvement in Pyongyang.
At the rally on Saturday, Jun reiterated the claim that Moon had “turned South Korea over to North Korea” and said communism had taken over the Blue House, the presidency. One supporter carried a banner that read “Jailing Moon Jae-in is the best way to prevent disease.”
For his part, Moon described the banned rally aimed at him as “a very pointless act that is hampering everyone’s efforts to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus”. He also described it as an unforgivable act that could endanger people’s lives.
CNN’s Jake Kwon and Gawon Bae contributed to the coverage.