President Moon Jae-in met with leaders of Protestant groups on Thursday, asking for their support in the fight against COVID-19, as churches continue to be linked to infection clusters. But church leaders reiterated that worship services are the essence of faith and cannot be compromised.
At the meeting with the representatives of 16 churches and related groups, Moon highlighted in strong words the developments surrounding cluster outbreaks at various churches.
“A particular church has refused the government’s quarantine guidelines, and hindered (related processes) and led to nearly 1,000 confirmed cases,” Moon said, adding that nearly 300 people had been infected at a demonstration attended by numerous members of that church.
Moon was referring to the Sarang Jeil Church led by Jun Kwang-hoon, who is currently being treated for COVID-19.
While churches have been hot spots for infection clusters from the start of the outbreak in South Korea, the issue took on a new dimension after an anti-government protest led by Jun’s church. The Sarang Jeil Church, or its members, appear to be behind rumors that authorities are tampering with test results to manipulate public opinion, and to oppress the congregation.
Moon said the virus is being spread by some who attended the protest but would not come forward later, adding that senseless actions are being carried out in the name of the church.
Moon said that while he understands the desire to attend services, churches must cooperate, as half of the infections confirmed in the resurgence that began in August happened in churches.
“Prayer or services can bring peace to the mind, but they cannot defend against the virus. All religions should accept that quarantine is not the domain of God, but the domain of science and medicine,” Moon said.
Saying that working together to bring the outbreak under control is the fastest way to enable people to resume religious services, Moon went on to urge those present to lend their strength to the COVID-19 fight.
The groups appear unlikely to follow guidelines to hold only online services.
“I would like government officials to not treat religious groups such as (Protestant) churches, Catholic churches and temples like business,” United Christian Churches of Korea chief Kim Tae-young said.
Referring to Moon’s recent statement that freedom of religion and freedom of assembly cannot be claimed at costs as large as that brought on by resurgence of the coronavirus, Kim said that he was shocked to hear that the government could “so easily limit and stop freedom of religion.”
Moon made the comment at Tuesday’s meeting with his senior aides, referring to the cluster infections that followed the protest led by Sarang Jeil Church.
While agreeing that churches should comply with government policies, Kim said that Protestant churches in Korea do not have a single governing body and therefore cannot be controlled by associations such as those represented by the attendants of the meeting.
Kim also suggested establishing a body to coordinate issues between the government and churches, and hinted that churches will continue to push to hold offline services.
“Churches will cooperate with the government, but cannot give up the efforts to defend services, which is the essence of churches. The reality is that churches cannot be closed and hold online services when COVID-19 is unlikely to end in one or two months.”
At the meeting Moon also touched on the collective action taken by doctors, saying that while he believes the doctors will do their duty, the government must respond in accordance with the law if the situation continues.
“The government will talk with the medical professionals, but at the same time (the government) cannot but follow principles and laws in engaging the issue,” Moon said.
In protest of a number of policies, including plans to increase the number of medical students and establish a state-run medical school, doctors across the country began a three-day strike Wednesday. In addition, medical students are boycotting the state medical licensing exam.
By Choi He-suk (email@example.com