In South Korea’s new COVID-19 outbreak, religion and politics collide
By Choe Sang-Hun
For months, the redbrick church in a rundown neighborhood of Seoul, the South Korean capital, has attracted thousands of politically active conservative Christians, all united in the belief that their country is falling into a godless communist hell under the leadership of its liberal president, Moon Jae-in.
Devotees of the church, known as the Sarang Jeil Church, whose name means “love comes first,” have participated in some of the largest anti-government protests the country has seen in years.
“If we hesitate, it will not be long before we live under the ‘great leader’ of North Korea. Do you want that?” the Rev. Jun Kwang-hoon, the church’s chief pastor, said during a large anti-government rally in central Seoul on Saturday.
Now their political crusade is colliding with the coronavirus, as a large outbreak centered on the church spreads fast through Seoul and beyond, threatening the country’s success in fighting the pandemic.
Moon has accused his most vocal critics of spreading the infectious disease and putting the entire nation in danger — a sentiment widespread on social media. Police officers have been sent to track down Sarang Jeil congregants who have broken quarantine.
But in today’s polarized South Korean society, fraught with misinformation, conspiracy theories and fearmongering, alternative narratives have also taken hold, purporting that the congregants have become the target of a political witch hunt or even a terrorist attack from communists.
Conservative activists have accused Moon of trying to scapegoat the church to divert attention from his weak approval ratings, which have been plummeting over domestic policy blunders like soaring housing prices. Church officials even suspect that health officials manipulated virus-test results to keep Moon’s die-hard critics quarantined.
In the past week, the outbreak has forced the church to shut down and its congregants to isolate themselves at home. The infections among church members and their contacts have spiked to 676 cases, including Jun.
The outbreak pushed South Korea’s daily caseload to 288 on Thursday, the seventh straight day of triple-digit jumps, which shattered hopes that the country had managed to blunt the epidemic sooner than most nations. It marked the biggest cluster of infections in South Korea since an outbreak in the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in the central city of Daegu in February and March was tied to 5,200 patients.
Health officials have warned that the outbreak at Sarang Jeil could prove far more devastating than Shincheonji’s.
It has erupted at the center of the Seoul metropolitan area, home to half the country’s 51 million people. Sarang Jeil’s congregation is much older and could prove weaker to the virus than that of Shincheonji.
Unlike Shincheonji’s secretive congregation, many of Sarang Jeil’s 4,000 congregants traveled from across the country to attend Jun’s sermons and political rallies in Seoul. Health officials have been racing to track them down for testing and isolating, warning of “massive nationwide transmission.”
South Korean Protestant churches have deep ties with the United States. American missionaries brought the religion to Korea.
Many of the megachurches in South Korea were founded by Protestants who fled communist persecution in North Korea before the 1950-53 Korean War and benefited from postwar aid from U.S. churches. To older Christian conservatives who remember the carnage of the war and the poverty that followed, religious faith remains synonymous with anti-communism and loyalty to the alliance with the United States, which defended South Korea during the war.
Jun has roused these old sentiments with sermons replete with expletives against Moon. He calls Moon a “chief North Korean spy” and urges his followers to become “martyrs” in a war to drag him and other “North Korea followers” out of the presidential Blue House.
“He speaks in a language his audience can understand and like to hear,” said Hwang Gui-hag, the editor-in-chief of the Seoul-based Law Times, which specializes in church news. “He scratches them where it itches the most.”
Health officials are now investigating the source of the virus in the Sarang Jeil congregation. The first case was reported Aug. 12.
Amid a surge in infections, the government ordered congregants to stay home last week. But Saturday, at least 10 church members, including Jun, attended the anti-Moon rally in Seoul, health officials said.
Moon called their behavior “an unpardonable act against the safety of the people,” accusing them of impeding the government’s efforts to fight the disease. Sarang Jeil officials said they had enforced preventive measures against COVID-19 during their church gatherings and were urging all members to cooperate with the government.
A deep anti-government sentiment among church members could impede health authorities’ efforts. Thousands of police officers were mobilized to track down more than 500 church members who remained unreachable although they needed testing.