All Press Releases for August 22, 2020

South Korea Dismisses Release Request of Arrested 89-year-old Church Leader, Church Fights Back

The Shincheonji Church of Jesus and others around the world have spoken up against the detainment of the church's Chairman, Man Hee Lee. The people of the church report targeting and persecution while they are victims of the virus themselves.

    SEOUL, KOREA, August 22, 2020 /24-7PressRelease/ -- South Korea has recently been in the global spotlight in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic when in early 2020 it was one of the first countries after China to have a regional outbreak. Many media outlets attributed the outbreak to Shincheonji Church of Jesus (SCJ), a minority religious group headquartered in South Korea when "Patient 31" attended a worship service in Daegu and spread the virus to other SCJ members.

An investigation of SCJ Church was launched by Korean officials following the outbreak to determine the magnitude of the spread and perform contact tracing. According to SCJ Church, on February 19th (one day after Patient 31 was confirmed COVID-19 positive), the Korean government requested a list of all SCJ members, including those of other SCJ church locations and abroad churches. The lists were submitted by the church, but Korean officials claimed that the lists provided were falsified. The late mayor of Seoul, Park Won-soon, ordered a raid of the SCJ Headquarters to obtain a complete list of members, but investigators ultimately found that the church had not lied about the member lists and were following guidelines from the Korean President when the church outbreak occurred.

Despite this, Korean officials arrested 89-year-old Man Hee Lee, the Chairman of SCJ Church on July 31st for allegedly submitting a falsified list of church members and facilities to the government. He is currently awaiting trial in a South Korean Detention Center.

SCJ members have begun speaking up against the arrest of Chairman Lee and persecution against the religious group as a whole, claiming that the group was blamed for the COVID-19 outbreak because of its reputation in South Korea as being a cult. SCJ claims that some of the lists provided to the government were leaked, causing many people to be inadvertently "outed" as members of SCJ to their families and friends. This has reportedly caused many people to lose their jobs and be ostracized by their family members. Some members even report being kicked out their homes for being affiliated with the church. One SCJ member in the United States said that this persecution is "something we've brought up as a violation of human rights, but Korea has not recognized this as a problem." In an effort to help in the COVID-19 relief efforts, the church even hosted a plasma drive in July for members who had recovered from the virus to help develop treatments or a vaccine. Although 500 members donated badly needed plasma, the effort by the church at redemption has seemed to have fallen on deaf ears.

The legal team defending the SCJ Chairman requested that he be released while awaiting trial, but the request was dismissed based on worries of destruction of evidence. An SCJ spokesperson assured that the church is fully cooperating with health authorities and it will do its best so that "the truth is clearly proved in court." SCJ says that keeping an 89-year-old in custody before trial is unprecedented in the country, and that people of such advanced age that have not been convicted should not be detained. This issue, however, is not exclusive to the South Korean justice system.

Many elderly convicts in the United States are spared prison time based on Compassionate Release. Compassionate Release can be granted to those who suffer from terminal illness, advanced age, sickness, debilitation or extreme family circumstances that outweigh continued imprisonment. One specific case in 2008 involved an 85-year-old New Jersey man who admitted to providing classified US military documents to an Israeli agent in the early 1980s. Instead of serving jail time for espionage, he was fined $50,000 because the judge stated that prison "would serve no purpose". Compassionate Release applies to those who have already been found guilty and is decided during sentencing, which carries more leniency than the SCJ Legal Team is requesting.

An SCJ spokesperson said that persecution against the church has included "hate crimes and violation of human rights, just because they are Shincheonji [members]". They added, "As you know Shincheonji is labelled as a cult within Korea… Because of this label we are often discriminated against." Many international leaders have also spoken up about the supposed unfair treatment toward SCJ and Chairman Lee. Letters have been sent to South Korean officials from influencers in India, Israel, Pakistan, Romania, the US, and more. A former member of the South African Parliament said in an interview: "We have to accept blame for the virus that is affecting the entire world. It cannot be attributed to one individual or his church." In addition, a White Paper created by a panel of religion and law experts was created containing information on Shincheonji's involvement in the South Korean COVID-19 outbreak. You can find the White Paper here.

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