"Shincheonji" the new "plague spreaders": history of a modern religious persecution

Shincheonji emblem

by Silvio Calzolari — Disasters and calamities seem to be the most overwhelming evidence of the precariousness of the human condition, of the fragility of societies and of any cultural construction. A calamity is a situation of extreme criticality that occurs when a potentially destructive and dangerous agent strikes a population that is caught in a situation of great vulnerability. Disasters and calamities cause a sense of insecurity and terror. But how do we react to external and sometimes invisible factors, as in the case of epidemics that can suddenly strike everything that seems to guarantee our protection and security (family, home, society)?

The causes and cures of an epidemic are not easily identified, and the perceptual invisibility of the virus can easily become cognitive blindness. Anxiety, the real nightmare of contamination, fear, the terror of the invisible enemy, and ignorance can lead us to endemic forms of collective panic. And if bad information and speculation are added to these, the result we will have is chaos. In these emergency conditions we can often see a real drift in mass psychology that can lead to the institutionalization of discrimination and violence.

Often these crisis situations give rise to the search for a "scapegoat", which certainly does not solve the problem but provides an explanation, albeit fanciful, for the negative events. In this way, in the European Middle Ages, the myth of the plague spreaders arose, who voluntarily spread the contagion by means of ointments applied to doorposts or dust sprinkled on the victims' clothes.

This is what happened especially between the years 1321-1390 (do you remember the great plague of 1348-49 described by Giovanni Boccaccio in the pages placed as an introduction to the first day of the Decameron?). The Jews, accused of spreading the plague, were persecuted and killed (the massacres of Strasbourg and Cologne). The same delirium was resumed by Nazi propaganda in 1941 when the rumor was spread that the Polish Jews were the cause of the spread of a typhus epidemic that had caused numerous victims in Central Europe.

In modern times, the myth of the plague spreader has resurfaced with the spread of Spanish fever, AIDS, Ebola or polio. In 2012, in Pakistan and Nigeria, a large number of volunteers administering polio vaccines were accused of being plague spreader paid by the U.S. government to sterilize young Muslims. Many of those young doctors were slaughtered by Islamic extremists

Recently, the term plague spreader  has been joined by the more neutral term "patient zero", indicating those who, as carriers of diseases, do not infect voluntarily but risk infecting others. But even the search for "patients zero" can sometimes degenerate into a real witch hunt. And this is exactly what is happening in South Korea where the members of a new religious movement, the "Shincheonji" ("New Heaven and New Earth; that is, the Church of Jesus and the Temple of the Tabernacle of Testimony"), in the international hysteria caused by the spread of the so-called "Coronavirus" (Covid-19), have become real scapegoats.

In some South Korean newspapers (and the news was taken up by the media of many other countries), the members of "Shincheonji", a marginal religious movement of Christian inspiration, who in reality are, like many of their fellow countrymen, the victims of the contagion, were described as "affiliated with a secret apocalyptic cult" and unconscious (in the most benevolent hypothesis) or devious spreaders of the virus. It was to be expected that sooner or later someone would blame the spread of the contagion to some religious movement considered dangerous and hastily labeled as a "culy". It was only a matter of time. And, punctually, the accusation arrived.

But no wonder, after all there is nothing new under the sun. Disinformation has always existed and has always been used in every way by regimes around the world to reassure, blandish and manipulate what is instead under everyone's eyes but has been and is difficult to govern.

In the case of the spread of the "Coronavirus", the South Korean government seems to have behaved with a certain lightness by blocking entry from China with great delay and only when the epidemic had already spread everywhere. Probably, in order to divert public attention from that failure, an attempt was made to mix, in a false alchemy, the objective truth with the political needs of the moment (in South Korea political elections are approaching on April 15), identifying in the church of "Shincheonji", a "scapegoat".

In the information disseminated by many South Korean media, the truth of the facts and the reconstruction of the events seem to clash with an almost insurmountable wall of disinformation aimed at delegitimizing any other autonomous and independent opinion

From this point of view, Professor Massimo Introvigne did well, in his "Newsletter of CESNUR" on February 28 (published here also by FOB), to denounce the defamatory campaign against the church of "Shincheonji" underway in South Korea. As Introvigne writes, "Shincheonji", which in recent years had experienced an extraordinary expansion in Korea, has long been attacked by some politicians and members of other religious groups and has become an excellent "scapegoat" on which to lay the blame for the spread of the "Coronavirus". What better plague spreaders if not the members of a movement considered a "dangerous cult", an "apocalyptic cult" and famous for its secrecy in disclosing the names of its affiliates.

So, instead of being self-critical for not having immediately closed the borders and blocked the entry from China since the first news of the contagion, some members of the South Korean government and politicians close to rival religious groups, through the regime's media, have accused the members of "Shincheonji" of having infected the citizens of Daegu (one of the headquarters of the movement) on their return from a trip to Wuhan, China, where they had gone for the opening of a church

I recall that Daegu is three hundred kilometers southwest of Seoul and that the Chinese city of Wuhan is the place from which the "Coronavirus" has spread. The contagion is said to have occurred because some members of the movement (including a 61-year-old woman called "patient 31" and described as a real plague spreader) carried out their religious services without any protection (masks and gloves) and without warning the citizens of Daegu that they were ill. The news that one or more of the followers of "Shincheonji" were the plague spreaders bounced all over East Asia (the South China Morning Post, an English-language daily newspaper in Hong Kong, reported on February 27/28/29). Then, with a technique of disinformation dear to a certain type of journalism, in South Korea, interviews with ex-followers of the religious movement (only those who agreed in condemning the "Shincheonji") and some relatives of members of that Church (unhappy that their loved ones were devoted to that faith) were multiplied.

Some articles in the South China Morning Post (reporting news from South Korean newspapers and online sites) describe well how today "Shincheonji" is flooded with accusations coming from all sides, from different groups and individuals. And all the accusations, regardless of the reasons that generated them, invariably end up presenting that religious movement as a dark and disturbing plot. Also according to the South China Morning Post, an online post detailed the group's alleged plans to infiltrate other churches and religious movements in order to destroy them from within. And a pastor of one of these churches is said to have learned from an "informant who is a member of Shincheonji that the leaders of that movement had given orders to spread the Coronavirus to other religious groups" (South China Morning Post, 28/02/2020, "Coronavirus: In South Korea, mounting anger over Shincheonji Church"). In short, the news that some members of the "Shincheonji" would go incognito to visit the churches of other religious movements to spread the contagion has made the rounds of the web in South Korea and even if it is only a rumor without any foundation has become a real fact.

It is very likely that the South Korean regime's media used "Shincheonji" as a "scapegoat" to protect a global national image. I have previously discussed a certain type of "journalism" that manipulates information and facts. That "journalism" uses a technique well known to scholars of human behavior: people's ways of acting and thinking correspond to codified psychological logics, on which the tools of persuasion leverage to succeed in conditioning the behavior and opinions of individuals. For scholars of mass communication, this logic is known as "the principle of social proof": something is right and true for us if others also consider it to be so. In other words, the opinion and behavior of the people around us automatically influence our judgment and opinion. In this way the criterion used to prove a news "true" is not based on the actual "truthfulness of the event" but only on the fact that it is considered as such by other members of the community. Thus, in just a few days, for a large part of the South Korean public opinion, conditioned by the supposed authority of some journalists, complacent doctors and politicians, and by the emphasis of the media that cried conspiracy, the members of the "Shincheonji" became for all intents and purposes the only plague spreaders that propagated the epidemic, and more than half a million people signed an online petition for that religious movement to be disbanded.

With the spread of the "Coronavirus," South Korean society has thus been driven to believe that "Shincheonji" is “some sort of enemy to be exposed”, a secret society "that would embody the worst of all forms of religion”. But this should not surprise us. “Shincheonji" is not the first movement in history to become the object of such defamation and dramatization. And here, perhaps, the surprises begin. By analyzing the events and cross-referencing the sources, "Bitter Winter, A Magazine on Religious Liberty and Human Rights in China" has hypothesized that the persecution of some religious minorities in China (but also in Korea) is not only due to the rivalry of some rival church, the slander of some opposing political leader or the emphasis of a certain type of journalism that manipulates information.

They would only be the amplifiers of a message elaborated by some anti-religious groups of power, which could be the real creators of the lies, then spread by a certain press. Someone may think: "It is only a fanciful hypothesis! Here again the myth of the conspiracy resurfaces!"

But the hypothesis seems to become a certainty, when the same Bitter Winter, in many of its articles, as in the one of May 9, 2018 (“Report on Israel Sheds Light on How China uses International Anti-cultists") has highlighted how the Chinese Communist Party is linked to an international "anti-cult" network aimed at defaming religious minorities: "... while in the early days the international anti-cultist network represented only private interests, in the 21st century it is increasingly connected with regimes that persecute religious minorities and rely on it to justify persecution."

And again, Bitter Winter reported on how Korean anti- cultists collaborated with the Chinese Communist Party in organizing fake "spontaneous demonstrations" against refugees from The Church of Almighty God seeking asylum in South Korea.

The report cited by Bitter Winter's article, edited by HRWF (Human Rights Without Frontiers), denounces the links between the Chinese Communist Party and the international anti-cult network headed by the French FECRIS and its vice-president Alexander Dvorkin, a Russian Orthodox ex-priest[1] who owes his notoriety to the activities of repression of "non-Orthodox" religions in Russia and to the support of the repression operated by the Chinese government against any religion "not authorized" by the party.

Recent events in Korea could demonstrate how strong and influential are these international anti-cult movements always ready to justify the persecution of members of religious movements perceived as enemies and carriers of social disintegration.

But let us go back to the events of our "Shincheonji". With the invisible threat of contagion spreading more and more, fear in Korea has become widespread and deep, and the statements of church spokesmen aimed at calming the souls have been worth little, and it seems to be worth little that the "Shincheonji", trying to contain the virus, is cooperating with the "Korean Center for Disease Control" (KCDC), which in recent days has provided the government with a complete list of its Korean members and has had them tested, at its own expense, for the presence of the virus.

In order to cast a shadow over these gestures of goodwill, the Governor of Gyeonggi Province (South Korea), Lee Jae Myung, at the end of February, hastened to recount in a radio interview with the South Korean radio station TBS, how that religious group had initially been careful not to cooperate with the authorities.

Indeed, "Shincheonji" had not initially handed over to the health authorities its directory of members and lists of contacts. That delay cost "Shincheonji" dearly because all the Korean branches of that movement were closed (according to the media to be "sanitized").

On March 2, 2020 it was reported that the South Korean government had requested criminal proceedings against senior members of "Shincheonji". On that same day Lee Man-hee, the leader of the movement, in a dramatic speech on South Korean TV, was forced to publicly apologize, on his knees, for the delays in the delivery of the lists of members of his movement. Delay that according to Park Wen-soon, the Mayor of Seoul, caused the death of many people, because preventive measures would have saved many lives.

But fear and hostility towards "Shincheonji" is increasing not only in South Korea but also in other Asian countries. A website of the Singapore Government Agency (mha.gov.sg. 28/02/2020) raised the alarm not only about the real possibility that members of "Shincheonji" could transmit the contagion but also about the proselytizing activity that the movement would have carried out in that city-state. The same site went on to reveal, with curious thoughtfulness and concern, how the "Shincheonji", in the months leading up to the outbreak, had sought to register a company in Singapore under the name "Heavenly Culture, World Peace and Restoration of Light" (HWPL), and had incorporated a number of front companies (such as Spasie Pte Ltd.) and an enterprise called "Kings Ave", to: "Provide services, do corporate training and hold seminars for personal development, but which would actually be used to rent property to be used as a temple."

Immediately after the spread of the epidemic, the Singaporean government, on the basis of very rapid investigations, found that "the local chapter of Shincheonji had used deceptive means of proselytism in order to infiltrate other religious groups" and, after having blocked all activities of that movement, decided to act to ban its worship

What can I say? This is very strange in a city like Singapore that is open to religious movements of all traditions (with a few exceptions for the "Jehovah's Witnesses" who refuse to perform compulsory military service).

Article 15 of Singapore's Constitutional Charter guarantees everyone the right "to profess, practice and spread their religion", even if the Minister of the Interior, in the name of "maintaining religious harmony" throughout the country, can (through a law passed in 1990) issue restraining orders against those who incite hostility towards members of other religious groups, or for subversive activities or those linked to terrorism.

There are still many things to be clarified on the events of the persecution of the "Shincheonji" and FOB will talk about it again.

[1] ⬆︎ FOB has often dealt both with FECRIS and Alexander Dvorkin. Click on the respective links for a list of articles.