South Korea Church Coronavirus
Worshippers wearing face masks, amid concerns about the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus, attend a Sunday service at the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul on March 8, 2020. Photo By Ed JONES / AFP

Why Are Churches So Often at the Center of South Korea's COVID-19 Outbreaks?

Widespread churches in South Korea wield incredible power, with the number of Christian organizations outnumbering convenience stores in the country.
Junhyup Kwon
Seoul, South Korea
August 19, 2020, 2:25pm

South Korea, which had earlier contained a coronavirus outbreak effectively, is facing a new coronavirus resurgence. Like last time, this outbreak is again linked to a Church, with the country reporting a three-digit daily figure for a sixth consecutive day as of Wednesday.

The South Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare reported 297 coronavirus cases today  – the most in five months – and more than 1,200 cases over the past six days. Around 89 percent of the recent cases took place in the Seoul metropolitan area including Seoul, Incheon, and Gyeonggi Province.

At least 623 confirmed cases are linked to the Sarang Jeil Church in Seoul, after its pastor led an anti-government rally over the weekend.

The Anti-Government Rally in South Korea

Members of pro-US conservative right-wing and religious christian groups wave flags and shout slogans during an anti-government rally in the central Gwanghwamun area of Seoul on August 15, 2020. Photo By ED JONES / AFP

The church's chief pastor Rev. Jun Kwang-hoon, who has since gotten the virus, along with his wife and secretary, broke self-isolation rules. Although more than 4,000 members of the church including himself were ordered to test and to self-isolate for the 14-day period, he ignored the order and took part in the rally against President Moon Jae-in.

Through local Christian media outlet Newsnjoy, Jun claimed that North Korea may be involved in his church's massive outbreak and his church might be attacked by terrorists but did not provide evidence. 389 members of the church are uncontactable or declined to identify themselves as its members, according to the health authorities.

The recent outbreak is reminiscent of the first one experienced by South Korea. When the country was hammered by its first wave of the coronavirus between late February and early March, more than 5,300 cases were found to be linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus. The leader of the church, Lee Man-hee was arrested earlier this month.

Besides the Sarang Jeil Church, another large church, Woori Jeil Church in Yongin, south of Seoul, has at least 154 confirmed cases as of today, according to the health office. Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, known as the world's biggest church with 560,000 members, has seven confirmed cases, and the Antioch Church in Seoul has 18 cases.

But why do churches seem to be such a frequent COVID-19 hotspot for the country in the first place?

In South Korea, churches are not just religious places or groups but communities for daily lives. Some groups have considerable financial machinery and the power to attract crowds – because many are closely associated with particular political parties or political figures.

Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul

Worshippers wearing face masks, amid concerns about the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus, attend a Sunday service at the Yeouido Full Gospel Church in Seoul on March 8, 2020. Photo By ED JONES / AFP

For instance, the conservative pastor Jun has been an outspoken opponent of the country's leader and had led numerous anti-government rallies. He was even indicted in March on charges of violating election laws ahead of the National Assembly election.

"Churches may function as a state inside the state in South Korea", Vladimir Tikhonov (Pak No-ja), a Russian Korean professor of Korean Studies at the University of Oslo, told VICE News. "It is a closely knit, cohesive body which can disregard the national infection prevention instructions, with dire consequences for some of its members."

A prime example is a man in his 70s who was reportedly advised to postpone testing for the virus by another pastor of the Sarang Jeil Church, after he took part in the rally. He was told instead to take cold medicine, a local news cable channel YTN reported based on an audio recording file.

There is also a deep history in how Korean churches have wielded power. Korean religions have historically led modernization and democratization in the past, so "they have formed autonomous civil groups putting the value of freedom on the front burner," Park Myoung-Kyu, a professor of Sociology at Seoul National University, told VICE News.

In South Korea, the number of Christian organizations are more than that of convenience stores such as 7-Eleven, GS25, or CU, according to reports published last year by the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, and Statistics Korea. The number of Christian (Protestant) organizations was 55,104 which accounted for 76 percent of all religious organizations, while chain convenience stores numbered just 39,855.

Not surprisingly, some strong religious leaders of large churches have abused their power for personal or political purposes.

"In South Korea, Protestant churches are mostly managed by one lead pastor either small or big, thus it's the organizational structure, with hierarchy, that allows one pastor to have a huge influence on their worshippers," Park added. "Some people excluded from the society are more likely to depend on the religions or [leaders] and they ease their dissatisfaction and pent-up anger within the religious groups."

The Shincheonji has branches nationwide and in other countries, and followers disconnected from the society believe that their strong leader is a physically immortal messiah figure and has an eternal life, victims who used to be their members disclosed on YTN.

The Shincheonji members call their leader "father" and describe themselves as his children. When Lee was placed under arrest, the members said "the court has to arrest 'all his sons and daughters' if it has to imprison 'our father,'" reported the local news agency Newsis.

"In South Korea, churches often function as extended families cum quasi-states, Pastors are father figures, who are also supposed to take care of and find jobs in marriage partners for their parishioners," Vladimir pointed out. "It all works to strengthen the cohesion of the church congregation. It is much higher than in most U.S. churches."

In a public statement after an emergency meeting Tuesday, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said the government banned all in-person church services and indoor gatherings of 50 people or more, and outdoor ones of 100 or more in the Seoul metropolitan area, effective today. All religious gatherings have since been suspended.

The South Korean Minister of Health and Welfare Park Neung-hoo also announced that the government will take legal action against people who don't follow its guidelines.

The health office and city government has since filed a lawsuit against the chief pastor Jun for violating disease-control laws and obstructing investigations by providing an inaccurate contact list of church members, required for tracking the spread.

While the government can establish rules and penalties however, churches ultimately may also have a huge responsibility to keep their congregation safe – especially given the power they wield.

The United Christian Churches of Korea (UCCK), one of the biggest associations of Protestant churches, offered an apology for triggering the widespread of the virus yesterday, criticizing the Sarang Jeil Church's chief pastor for prioritizing politics over religion. UCCK called on them to return to the real self of Protestant churches.

This is the type of self-reflection needed from South Korean churches, that experts say is important now more than ever, especially after recent outbreaks.

"Churches in the 80s and 90s used to spend time reflecting on themselves, while today's churches have pushed back taking some time for self-examination," Professor Park said.

Amid a pandemic, this lack of self-examination however, could spell the difference between life and death.

Find Junhyup Kwon on Twitter.