On March 2, Rev. Lee Man-hee, the founder of the Shincheonji religious sect, expressed remorse that so many patients were tied to his church. If Rev. Lee apologized to the Korean people of his own free will, I respect his choice. However, I fear and suspect that he did it under duress. Seoul City Mayor Park Won-soon and other members of the governing, left-oriented Democratic Party have demanded government prosecution of Lee and other Shincheonji leaders “for murder, injury and violation of the law on prevention and management of infectious diseases.”
A professor colleague sent a text, which I wholeheartedly agree: “This recent move to prosecute church leaders for murder seems outrageous. They may be guilty of violations of infectious disease act or some other crimes related to negligence or withholding info. But going after them for murder is a political stunt and politicized crime. If I have the yearly flu and go out into the world and someone catches from me and dies -- am I now subject to being charged with murder?”
Shincheonji members were simply doing what most other Korean churches and businesses do: visiting their branches in China, including in Wuhan. Unfortunately, a few caught the COVID-19 and, unknowingly, spread it to others. The greater fault lies in Chinese local and central government authorities, who censored early information of the virus. A more open government response would have warned domestic citizens and foreigners to protect themselves from infection.
In Korea, left-wing party leaders are blaming an unpopular religious sect, and right-wing party leaders blame Chinese people. We should stop the politicized blame game, focus our efforts to contain the COVID-19 epidemic, and ensure that government authorities, whether in China or elsewhere, do not repeat the mistake of censoring vital information.
Secondly, Beijing’s repression of religious organizations and foreign missionaries has simply driven them underground. Seoul should not repeat the same mistake of persecuting religious followers and alienating them from government authorities. A degree of respect for religious freedom is both the liberal-principled and pragmatic approach to assist the infected and contain the epidemic.
From, Joseph Yi
Associate professor of political science
Hanyang University (Seoul)