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Churches in Korea consider canceling Sunday services as coronavirus spreads

Myungsung Church in eastern Seoul (Yonhap)
Myungsung Church in eastern Seoul (Yonhap)

Protestant churches in South Korea are considering canceling Sunday worship services this week due to the spread of COVID-19.

The disease became an even more serious concern for churches after a pastor at Myungsung Church in eastern Seoul, which has more than 100,000 members, was diagnosed with the virus on Tuesday. He is reported to have attended several services on Feb. 16.

Myungsung Church announced Tuesday that it is shutting down its facility and its Sunday services will be canceled until further notice. The church also added that it would proceed with worship services through online channels.

There are more than 100 Protestant megachurches in Korea -- churches with congregations of at least 10,000.

Some of these megachurches say they have made no decisions about whether to hold Sunday services as scheduled.

“Since there are a few days until this Sunday’s worship service, we are still discussing the matter. We will make an announcement by tomorrow noon at the latest,” SaRang Church spokesperson Park Seung-ho told The Korea Herald. The church has more than 90,000 followers.

Last week, the SaRang Church held Sunday services as usual. At the time, the church had installed five cameras at its main entrances to detect anyone with a fever. The church also asked anyone with virus symptoms to participate in worship through its online channel, SaRang TV.

Another megachurch, the Yoido Full Gospel Church, which has more than 560,000 followers, also said it had not yet made a decision.

“We know that there is criticism on some churches taking time to come up with their decision about canceling Sunday services. It is because protestant churches do not have a top-down decision-making system,” The National Council of Churches in Korea official Son Seung-ho said. “We respect each church’s decision and even within churches they have a system similar to parliament, so it takes a bit of time to make certain decisions like this.”

The National Council of Churches also added that some Christians value tradition and think that it is crucial to attend Sunday services.

“If you look at Korean Church’s history, it is understandable as people even attended Sunday services at hard times like when the country was a Japanese colony,” Son added.

Other churches have decided not to hold Sunday services in person and have asked followers to take part online.

“We decided to shut down our church until March 14,” the Onnuri Church said in a statement Tuesday. The church also added that its Sunday services would be held through its YouTube channel. According to its website, the Onnuri Church had over 82,500 followers as of 2011.

There was speculation that megachurches were hesitant to suspend their activities due to financial concerns.

“It can be one of the reasons,” Son, an official of The National Council of Church in Korea said. “Especially for megachurches, not having one or two weeks of Sunday service can mean losing billions of won. But it is not the main reason.”

Followers also added that offerings can be made online.

“There is an online bank account for our church. We can send our offerings there,” a member of the Onnuri Church said.

“Even before the virus broke out, churches had a system to collect money through an online bank account for followers who live outside of Korea. The offerings cannot be a problem,” said another Protestant church follower, who did not wish to be identified.

As the virus spreads day by day, the government is also asking churches to close their doors.

“We sent out guidelines on the coronavirus several times to religious groups, including Protestant churches. Since other religious groups, like Catholic churches and Buddhist groups, decided to shut down temporarily, we asked Christian churches to do the same. But for religious groups, we can only make recommendations and cannot force them to shut down,” Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism official Lee Hee-ryong told The Korea Herald.

By Song Seung-hyun and Lim Jang-won (ssh@heraldcorp.com) (ljw@heraldcorp.com)
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