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Christmas canceled in churches as COVID surges

Protestant churches split in their response to government’s de-facto ban on in-person worship

Worshipers leave Yoido Full Gospel Church in Yeouido, western Seoul on Sunday (Yonhap)
Worshipers leave Yoido Full Gospel Church in Yeouido, western Seoul on Sunday (Yonhap)

As the stricter social distancing scheme that goes into effect Tuesday does not allow houses of worship in the greater Seoul area to hold in-person Christmas services, some Protestant churches are calling the order “unrealistic.”

After the government raised social distancing measures to Level 2.5, the second highest in the five-tier system, in the Seoul metropolitan area in an effort to slow down the fast spreading wave of COVID-19, churches in the greater Seoul area will not be able to hold in-person services for three weeks beginning Tuesday.

Under the Level 2.5 plan, only up to 20 people can attend in-person activities organized by religious facilities. Small group gatherings and dining together are prohibited.

The United Christian Churches of Korea, one of the biggest associations of Protestant churches in the country, issued a statement Sunday, calling the Level 2.5 measure regarding religious services an “unrealistic regulation.”

The UCCK called for the government to regulate the number of people that can attend a church service considering each religious facility’s space and its infectious disease prevention capabilities.

“(The government) should suggest a tightly targeted model that does not infringe on the freedom of religion and daily lives of the people,” the statement read. “We should prepare for the post-pandemic, recognizing the importance of not just sanitary, physical disinfection but also psychological, mental disinfection.”

Reactions from worshipers to the strict social distancing rule are mixed. While some argue that the government is imposing stricter restriction on churches, some agree with the need for tight restrictions in the fight against the virus.

“We also are not happy with the full ban on in-person services. However, online services do not undermine the faith of congregations,” the National Council of Churches in Korea official Son Seung-ho said.

The NCCK is a Christian ecumenical organization in Korea.

“The government cannot provide individual guidelines for each church. The UCCK cannot decide for its churches. Churches should follow the governmental guidelines to fight the spread of the virus,” Son said.

Though the government had previously implemented two-week long restrictions, the scheme will continue for three weeks in an effort to curb Christmas and year-end gatherings.

The Level 2.5 response was necessary to “keep the health care system from collapsing,” Minister of Health and Welfare Park Neung-hoo said at a press briefing held Sunday. 

By Im Eun-byel (