South Korean church becomes coronavirus hotspot, government nightmare

By Andrés Sánchez Braun

Seoul, Aug 21 (efe-epa) .- The controversial Sarang Jeil Church had been a staunch critic of South Korea’s liberal government but now it finds itself in the public limelight after becoming a Covid-19 hotspot, the worst the capital city Seoul has faced since the pandemic began.

Attending a protest against president Moon Jai-in’s government on Saturday, the church’s leader, pastor Jun Kwang-hoon, shouted: “They have attacked our church with the virus!”

“Despite not having symptoms, the authorities have asked me to quarantine so as not to come here today,” he continued, addressing his followers.

Just three days earlier, the first few parishioners of this church located in the north of Seoul, many of whom are over 50, tested positive for coronavirus.

The words of the reverend at the demonstration perfectly illustrate the crusade he leads.

He banks on the support of the church’s 4,000 or so members, with other protestant congregations around the country embarking on a similar anti-government path.

To his followers, the pastor’s messages — brimming with machismo and hatred towards the Muslim and LGTBI communities, the current government and any leftist formation — are key to the “salvation of the country.”

South Korean media only started to notice this 64-year-old Presbyterian pastor and self-declared Donald Trump fan in the summer of 2019 during mass protests that demanded the resignation, for alleged corruption, of the former justice minister Cho Kuk.

Since February, when the first major coronavirus outbreak in South Korea was recorded, Jun has persistently defied the ban on holding large demonstrations or religious services, characterized by a histrionic fervour, without social distancing.

The reverend is now awaiting trial, accused of slandering Moon and violating the electoral law after having publicly asked his followers to vote for the main conservative party outside the campaign period.

His disciples do not seem to care that Jun baselessly accuses the government of “planting” the virus in his church and of falsifying tests to damage the public’s opinion on the church or even when he says attending his demonstrations cures the disease. Their only goal is to overthrow Moon.

“Jun represents what I would call the ‘ultra-conservative’ wing (of South Korean Protestantism), but he has true power and true followers even outside his church,” Italian Massimo Introvigne, founder and director of the Center for the Study of New Religions (CESNUR), says.

“This wing regards Catholicism as a ‘heresy’ and has defended extreme anti-communism from the 1950s,” he adds.

Two days after the demonstration, cases linked to the church were already skyrocketing and Jun tested positive for the virus.

Following the outbreak, the neighbourhood where the church is located looks like a war zone: the district has decided to demolish much of the area for redevelopment, security cordons were imposed by health authorities and church ‘friends’, how followers refer to themselves, built a perimeter with trucks and even barbed wire traversing the streets leading to the temple.

One of the friends tells Efe that even he “could do much better than Moon,” that authorities “are communists and communists always lie” and that “if this church disappears, it will mean the collapse of this country.”

To date, the outbreak linked to the church accounts for more than 700 Covid-19 cases throughout South Korea and, at least, a score of people not linked to the church, but who attended the protests, have also been infected.

To the joy of some, the central government has promised a firm hand against the church.

But others fear the measures to stop the largest outbreak in the South Korean capital could be interpreted as a political persecution against the church, which could drum up fresh support, perhaps even from political opposition.

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