Politicians’ extreme measures on Shincheonji face criticism

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Politicians’ extreme measures on Shincheonji face criticism

In the face of threats of arrest, Lee Man-hee, the leader of the Shincheonji church at the center of the coronavirus outbreak in Korea, visited a public health office Monday to be tested for the virus and he and two aides were confirmed to be infection free.

According to the Gyeonggi Provincial Government Tuesday, Lee and his two aides took the test at the Gwacheon City Public Health Office around 9:10 p.m. on Monday using a drive-through testing station. The provincial government sent the samples to the Institute of Health and Environment of Gyeonggi and all three were cleared by the agency.

In his first public appearance since the church emerged as a nexus in the outbreak, Lee, 88, who founded the controversial doomsday sect in 1984, said Shincheonji is “actively cooperating” with the government and all gatherings of the followers have been stopped. At the press conference on Monday, he also showed a copy of his coronavirus test outcome from a hospital.

Patient No. 31, a 61-year-old woman and a Shincheonji follower in Daegu, was diagnosed last month, and health officials said she may have helped spread the disease.

The provincial government, however, demanded that Lee take another test by a public institution for the sake of transparency. After Lee ended his press conference Monday afternoon, Gyeonggi officials tried to take a sample from him, but were blocked by Shincheonji members.

Gyeonggi Gov. Lee Jae-myung, known as a maverick in the political world, declared that he will go after the religious leader in person. The governor left his office in Suwon to Gapyeong, where Lee Man-hee held the press conference, to force him to take a test. “We will take his sample even if it requires the use of force,” the governor said.

Gov. Lee also said he will arrest Lee Man-hee and hand him over to the police if he refuses to take the test. Article 42 of the Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act allows the health minister, mayor or governor to force a medical examination and investigation upon a suspected patient.

Accompanied by public servants, police and emergency responders, the governor arrived at the Shincheonji’s Palace of Peace in Gapyeong around 9 p.m., but Lee Man-hee had already left the compound.

His current whereabouts are unknown.

As top politicians took extreme measures one after another against the secretive religion and its members, concerns grow that these measures will actually backfire. The Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters (CDSCH) said Tuesday that such forcible measures actually hinder its operation.

“Because Shincheonji followers increasingly go into hiding when the government undertakes forcible measures, we see adverse effects against our efforts to stop the outbreak,” Kim Gang-lip, a senior official of the CDSCH, said during a routine briefing on Monday. “Until we have definite proof that the followers intentionally obstruct our efforts, it is more important to persuade them to voluntarily cooperate with us.”

Kim was responding to recent measures taken by top officials against Shincheonji and its members. Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae on Friday ordered the prosecution to aggressively crack down on the Shincheonji followers if they are suspected of obstructing the public health authorities’ operations as well as urged prosecutors to actively conduct raids at the churches.

Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon also filed a criminal complaint against Shincheonji founder Lee, asking the prosecution to investigate him on various charges including gross negligence manslaughter.

“So far, Shincheonji did not intentionally omit information [about its followers] or refuse to cooperate,” said Kim. “There were no serious discrepancies between lists of followers seized by local governments and the lists offered by Shincheonji. They vary slightly whether they were sorted out by residential addresses or church addresses or whether they included minors or not.”

Although it is the first time the CDSCH officially expressed concerns about extreme measures, it has consistently discouraged forcible investigations. When the Daegu Metropolitan Government filed a criminal complaint against Shincheonji to the police last week, the Supreme Public Prosecutors’ Office asked the CDSCH if it needs supports to conduct crackdowns, to which the headquarters responded that it does not want any help for now, complaining about Daegu’s decision to trigger a criminal probe.

After checking with the CDSCH, the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office informed regional prosecution offices that the public health authorities already obtained the information it needed and they do not need to act.

“Crackdowns cannot stop the virus from spreading,” said Jun Byung-yool, former director of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “If they think they are being oppressed, Shincheonji followers may act dangerously, such as intentionally spreading the disease.”

“Instead of helping the quarantine efforts, Choo is actually making it more difficult,” he said.

Others question political motives behind the top officials’ extreme measures. Gwon Gyeong-ae of the Lawyers for a Democratic Society has criticized Park’s move, calling it a “modern-day witch hunt to find a scapegoat.” She also said after Mayor Park filed a criminal complaint, supporters of former Justice Minister Cho Kuk increasingly condemned Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl for lack of action. “Some are seeing this outbreak as an opportunity to go after Yoon,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Seoul Metropolitan Government said Tuesday that it will cancel the registration of Shincheonji as a corporation. “Taking into account everything, Shincheonji harms public interest, so we will start the process to take away the registration,” said Yoo Yeon-sik, head of the culture bureau of the Seoul Metropolitan Government.

If it loses the registration, it will no longer be recognized as a legitimate corporation. Tax benefits will also be revoked from the religious sect.

Yoo dismissed concerns that the move will infringe upon freedom of religion. “Freedom of religion is permitted only within the boundary of public interest,” he said.

A formal hearing with Shincheonji officials will take place next week to discuss the cancellation of registration.

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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