We may be tempted to believe that blatant human rights violations occur exclusively in underdeveloped nations that lack the necessary infrastructure to establish and uphold rule of law. If one were to believe that, one might be surprised to hear about recent events in South Korea that speak to the contrary. 

To say the absolute least, COVID-19 has disrupted the global community. Many countries struggle with the virus itself, and with the fallout caused by the outbreak: economic downturns, loss of community as we self-isolate, perpetual uncertainty over what the world is going to look like this time next year, etc.

South Korea has made rigorous effort to try and restore a sense of normalcy, and President Moon’s government has been praised by the international community for its efforts to contain the outbreak. What has gone unreported is the government’s abuse of power that has harassed, targeted and silenced religious minorities and their religious freedom. 

Beginning in February, a congregant of one of these religious minority groups—Shincheonji, the New Heaven New Earth Church of Jesus—contracted coronavirus. Hers was the 31st confirmed case in Daegu South Korea, but this fact did not shield the church from the targeted harassment coming from the Christian Council of Korea (CCK), which has long sought to eliminate the church over differences in doctrine.  The church was falsely blamed as ground zero of the pandemic. However, it was government officials who allowed for unrestricted travel between China and South Korea even after it was obvious that coronavirus was a serious threat to public health.

What’s baffling is that the church complied with the South Korean government’s orders. They were the first to shut down in-person services six months ago, moving online when other churches were still meeting in person. Four thousand congregants even pledged to donate plasma in a good faith effort to assist the Korean CDC’s attempts to produce a COVID vaccine. From the outset of the pandemic, government officials have sought to blame the church in a blatant attempt to shield themselves from criticism over their own failures to contain the spread of COVID at the beginning of the outbreak. To that purpose, the government found its ally in the CCK.

Government officials have aligned themselves with the CCK, despite the fact that nearly 12,000 CCK pastors were sentenced for fraudulent and violent crimes. The CCK advocates coercive conversion, which involves manipulating families into forcefully kidnapping their loved ones and subjecting them to days of mental and physical abuse, all in an effort to force them to accept teachings contrary to their beliefs. In December 2017, a congregant died during the coercive conversion process, yet the CCK pastors who were responsible for this crime were never held accountable. This is the type of organization that the government has locked arms with. These human rights violations wouldn’t be possible without enablers in the government. Political leaders like the Korean Minister of Justice are suppressing their fellow citizens’ religious freedoms. These religious minorities suffer in silence, live in fear of discrimination, and are forced into religious conversion.

Despite the government’s admission that the church’s nonagenarian leader, Lee Man-Hee, poses no flight risk, an arrest warrant was issued on August 1, 2020. He is expected to remain in custody indefinitely until the outcome of his case is determined. This is the kind of treatment reserved for terrorists and other heinous criminals who pose a legitimate threat to the public, not the pastor of a church that complied with the government’s orders, a church that was not responsible for bringing coronavirus into the nation.

It’s astonishing that blatant human rights violations can occur in such a vibrant democracy that guarantees religious freedom. South Korea’s political leaders owe it to their citizens to protect basic human. However, since the government chooses to utilize the pandemic to its advantage—blaming religious minorities in a shameless attempt to shield themselves from criticism over their own malfeasance—the responsibility falls on people to speak up and hold these so-called leaders accountable for these human rights violations.

If we remain indifferent towards the persecution of vulnerable minority groups, then we are also complicit in the violation of human rights. It is time to hold President Moon’s government accountable for its blatant human rights violations.