How religion is playing a role in the spread of coronavirus in Korea

Keeping the faith.
Keeping the faith.
Image: Reuters/Kim Hong-ji
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Religion is at the center of many lives in Korea. Now it’s at the center of a rapidly spreading contagion.

The largest number of Covid-19 infections outside of China is now in Korea. Health officials there have confirmed more than 1,000 cases and the virus has so far killed 11 people. About half those cases are linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a group the government describes as a cult, prompting officials to test all 200,000 of its followers.

Authorities linked another cluster of cases to a church in the southern city of Busan, and yet another to a group of Catholic pilgrims returning from Israel. The virus also infected a number of people at the Myeongseong megachurch in Seoul, which has 80,000 congregants.

In response, the Catholic Church today suspended all masses in Korea. Buddhist temples and Protestant churches around the country have also suspended religious gatherings. Shincheonji halted its services too. The moves to limit religious activity in Korea are by no means specific to Korea—churches and temples in Singapore and Hong Kong have made similar decisions. But organized religion has played a far bigger role in the spread of Covid-19 in Korea.

Explaining the linkages between religion and the outbreak in Korea, Francis Jae-ryong Song, a professor in sociology at Kyung Hee University in Seoul, described the country as a “zealous Christian state.” He said many Korean Christians have an “evangelical mindset” and their religious activities, like attending worship sessions and outreach multiple times a week, and their unwillingness to curb those activities, may have led to the large-scale spread of the contagion.

About 30% of Korea’s 50 million people identify as Christian, according to some estimates. The church is also politically active in Korea and exerts a powerful influence on government policy. The impact of Korean evangelicals is also felt strongly abroad: The country sends the second-largest number of missionaries overseas.

In the context of the coronavirus, that religious fervor in Korea has played a role. A former member of Shincheonji told the New York Times that members were told not to be afraid of sickness and focus only on converting more followers. Now, as the virus tears through the Shincheonji community, the municipal government in Seoul has banned all of the sect’s gatherings in the capital.

Even as the virus spreads, and after the Korean government advised the public against mass gatherings, some have continued to attend church, and not all churches in Korea have canceled services. Paul Cha, an expert on Korean history and religion at the University of Hong Kong, emphasized the importance of church-going as a ritual for many Korean Christians. “It constitutes an important part of your faith and devotion. Unless you’re really sick on your death bed…you go to church,” he said. He added, however, that Koreans may also be more likely to continue going to group activities as they do not have the “social memory” of living through SARS as people in Hong Kong did in 2003.

Jun Kwang-hoon, a populist reverend known for his fervent conservatism and criticism of the left-leaning national government, has been particularly outspoken since the coronavirus virus reached Korea, illustrating how religion and politics—and now health—often intersect in Korea.

Defying a ban against large gatherings, he led an anti-government rally in central Seoul on Feb. 22, where he told the crowd, mostly older Koreans, that god would cure them of the disease if they caught it and that it was “patriotic” to die from the virus, the Korea Herald reported. Seoul’s mayor later questioned (link in Korean) Jun’s sanity on a radio program.

One elderly attendee—who risked a fine of $2,500 for attending the rally—told Voice of America that government bans on public protests were just another form of political suppression.

Authorities arrested the reverend on Monday on unrelated charges. The reverend had said he was planning another mass protest this coming weekend to call for the resignation of Korea’s president, but has since called it off.