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Christians worry that COVID-19 outbreaks at churches could feed anti-Christian hostility

As several COVID-19 infection clusters have emerged at churches, bringing religious institutions to the public’s attention as potential sources of contagion, some Christians worry that these incidents could feed hostility against Christianity.

After the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, considered a cult by mainstream Protestant churches, became the epicenter of the outbreak in South Korea, cases have emerged at a number of other churches across the country.

Criticism of churches escalated when a new infection cluster appeared at the River of Grace Community Church in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, at a time when the spread of the coronavirus in Korea appeared to be slowing down.

Yoo Hye-rin, whose church has suspended its offline Sunday services and now worships online, says she is worried about the deteriorating image of Christianity, already tarnished in the eyes of many nonbelievers over father-to-son succession at megachurches and other political and social problems.

“There is an insulting word in Korean that refers to Christianity, combining the word ‘dog’,” said Yoo. “I am worried that the coronavirus infection cases could reinforce people’s bad impression of Christianity here.”

When a 30-year-old researcher surnamed Kang, a non-Christian, used the Bundang subway line recently to go to work in Gangnam-gu, southern Seoul, she noticed people were avoiding sitting next to a woman who was wearing a bracelet featuring a cross that was large enough to catch people’s eye.

“Only the seats near the woman were empty, and I was also reluctant to sit next to her,” Kang said. “What if she had attended a big worship event like the ones Shincheonji held?”

Some comments on local news reports about infection clusters at churches show hostility toward churches that continue to hold Sunday services despite government warnings and appeals from church groups to suspend church gatherings for a while.

“What is the difference between Shincheonji and the churches that stubbornly continue service, failing to communicate with the community?” one comment reads.

“We are all suffering from the prolonged viral infection and doing our best to overcome this dire situation. How is it that they can stick with having large events at this time?” another comment reads.

A Christian surnamed Park, who is in his 50s and attends the Yoido Full Gospel Church, said he is sad to see Christianity being blamed when the majority of churches are being careful about hosting big events and have taken their Sunday services online.

“The basic notion of Christianity is to love and care for others, and we all should put efforts as Christians to prevent viral infection and minimize the damage from it,” Park said. “It is understandable that some churches do not have infrastructure and therefore cannot hold online services. But I think we have to hold off having mass events for now and all churches have to help each other.”

Kim Min-kyung, a Christian, said there is nothing she can do but endure the ongoing situation.

“When things are going bad, and the situation is quite tough, people look for something to blame and I think Christianity has become one of the targets,” Kim said. “I worship via online service every Sunday, and I pray that this difficult time for all of us passes soon.”

About 19.7 percent of Koreans are Protestants, according to the latest figures from Statistics Korea in 2015, making it the largest religious group in the country.

Ahn Keun-jo, a professor of Christian studies at Hoseo University, said churches in Korea need to make more efforts to communicate with society to correct the bad impression that is deeply rooted in the minds of some nonbelievers.

“Some churches have neglected communication with others as if they were on an isolated island,” Ahn said. “However, this can actually can be a good opportunity for some churches to show they are also aware of being part of society and are willing to contribute to society by actively joining social movements such as social distancing.”

By Park Yuna (