Hundreds of South Koreans held in-person church services this weekend, defying government appeals to cancel large gatherings amid fears of a rise in novel coronavirus cluster infections in the country.
The Yonhap News Agency reported hundreds of religious South Koreans defied government restrictions on gatherings to meet in person. Concerned officials threatened “stern” legal action against violators of quarantine mandates moving forward.
In the southeastern city of Busan, almost 540 churches met for regular services over the weekend.
Among the most defiant churches was Sarang Jeil Church in northern Seoul. As reported by Reuters, members of Sarang Jeil scuffled with police on Sunday, when church attendees tried to force out a dozen security officers. A Seoul city official was quoted as saying Sarang Jeil Church did not follow rules and ensure sufficient space among attendees, which was one of the guidelines for gatherings set forth by the government.
Scuffle with police as Seoul's Sarang Jeil Church and its mainly elderly followers insist on holding worship services this morning despite orders not to. They are adamant that the right to worship is an inalienable right given to them by God.https://t.co/bnqse61glR pic.twitter.com/kqSq4c9GOB
— Raphael Rashid (@koryodynasty) March 22, 2020
Sarang Jeil Church’s conservative pastor, Rev. Jun Kwang-hoon, was indicted Monday for allegedly defaming South Korean President Moon Jae-in and breaking election law. In addition to heading Sarang Jeil Church, Jun has lead mass anti-government rallies in central Seoul. Elsewhere in Seoul, residents staged a rally in front of the Yonsei Central Baptist Church. Ironically gathered in a group, protesters held signs calling for a halt to services for the safety of neighbors.
On Monday, government officials confirmed the “legal action” threatened Sunday was now a reality. According to Prime Minister Chung, South Korea will take legal actions against several Protestant churches for violating the government’s guidelines over the weekend, and for preventing the spread of the new [Chinese] coronavirus, Yonhap reported Monday.
Speaking at a pan-government meeting on Chinese coronavirus responses, Chung said: “The churches’ act seriously hurt the safety of not only individuals attending the service but also communities … Now is an emergency situation that amounts to a quasi-wartime situation. People should not regard the government’s administrative orders as a bluff.”
Legal actions will include entity closures and filing compensation suits.
“There can’t be tolerance anymore when it comes to acts that impede the government’s quarantine efforts and do harm to our community,” South Korean Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said during a session of the Central Disaster Safety Countermeasures Headquarters on Sunday.
Chung proposed serious repercussions for quarantine violators.
“We should take stern legal action, such as punishing those who breach the [quarantine-related order],” Chung said. Chung also reiterated the need to enforce the suspension of religious, indoor sports, and entertainment facilities for 15 days. The suspension was proposed Saturday, one day prior to the defiant church gatherings.
Culture Minister Park Yang-woo also renewed an appeal for religious circles to participate in this suspension of gatherings. While visiting the Youngnak Presbyterian Church in central Seoul, Park pleaded with church officials, “I make this earnest call for the religious sector to actively partake in this measure based on the understanding that this is an inevitable step to protect the life and safety [of citizens], though the recommended social distance measure is difficult.”
The crackdown comes amid concern that the country faces a rise in cluster infections, especially as they are linked to religious gatherings.
Last week, South Korea reported a rise in new coronavirus cluster infections in Seoul and Daegu. This sparked fears of a resurgence in cases across the country, while also casting doubt on the reported slowdown in new cases nationwide.
More than half of South Korea’s Chinese coronavirus cases were traced to a fringe Christian church in the southeastern city of Daegu. Last week, roughly 60 members of a Protestant church in Seongnam, just south of Seoul, tested positive for the Chinese coronavirus.
At press time Monday, South Korea had recorded 8,961 infections and 111 deaths from the Chinese coronavirus.