South Korea imposed a ban on Christmas church services in Seoul as a response to a recent surge in cases of the Chinese coronavirus, sparking anger and disappointment from swathes of the country’s religious community, the Korea Herald reported Monday.
Under the new government tier system intended to curb the spread of the virus, churches in Seoul will be unable to hold in-person services for three weeks beginning Tuesday. Small groups meeting and dining together will also be prohibited.
The move has sparked criticism from the United Christian Churches of Korea, one of the country’s biggest associations of Protestant churches, calling the Level 2.5 measure regarding religious services an “unrealistic regulation.” In a statement released on Sunday, the association called on the government to impose restrictions based on the size and indoor space of the church or said facility.
“(The government) should suggest a tightly targeted model that does not infringe on the freedom of religion and daily lives of the people,” the statement read. “We should prepare for the post-pandemic, recognizing the importance of not just sanitary, physical disinfection but also psychological, mental disinfection.”
A spokesperson for the National Council of Churches in Korea (NNCK) said the group understood the decision and suggested that online services could take place instead.
“We also are not happy with the full ban on in-person services. However, online services do not undermine the faith of congregations,” said NNCK official Son Seung-ho. “The government cannot provide individual guidelines for each church. The UCCK cannot decide for its churches. Churches should follow the governmental guidelines to fight the spread of the virus.”
The South Korean government placed the country under fresh restrictions a fortnight ago that have now been extended through Christmas. At a press briefing on Sunday, Minister of Health and Welfare Park Neung-hoo said they needed to impose Tier 2.5, the second-highest tier, in order to “keep the health care system from collapsing.”
Although there are obvious health concerns around the pandemic, President Moon Jae-in has unsuccessfully tried to weaponize the pandemic to prevent demonstrations against various government policies such as a liberalization of abortion laws. Conservative dissidents found various innovative ways of dodging the rules, which include holding “drive-thru” rallies from the comfort of their own vehicles.
As of Monday, South Korea has reported 38,161 cases and 549 deaths and a mortality rate of 10.62 per million people. This places it well below many other developed nations, with dozens of countries facing mortality rates as high as 600 deaths per million people.