For South Korean Christians like CG Hwang, watching the state sue his church and suspend religious services has confirmed his suspicions: the leaders in Seoul are comparable to the rulers in North Korea.
“This coronavirus thing is a total scam,” said Mr Hwang, a 68-year-old member of Sarang Jeil church, a Presbyterian group with thousands of followers. “It is like a witch hunt. They are trying to kill our church . . . The government is using the virus to turn our country into a communist state.”
Having just brought under control South Korea’s worst coronavirus outbreak in six months, health officials are bracing themselves for another wave. Opposition groups with links to politically active churches — who were blamed for the recent virus resurgence — are planning a series of mass protests in the capital over the coming weeks.
Holding anti-government demonstrations in the middle of a pandemic has sparked outrage among many South Koreans and officials alike, who fear the country’s public health system and economy will be threatened.
But the fierce conflict between the government and conservative opposition groups has also highlighted the fissures straining South Korean society and raised questions over the political influence held by fringe churches and their leaders.
“We are very concerned that another big rally could result in mass infections, especially given the number of asymptomatic patients and untraceable cases,” Yang Ji-ho, the head Seoul city’s health policy team, told the Financial Times.
Mr Yang said city officials were working with police to try and block the protests because the risks were “so high”.
The Seoul city government on Friday filed legal claims against the Sarang Jeil church, seeking Won4.6bn ($4m) in damages over its role in a rally in August. The church allegedly violated the country’s infectious disease prevention law, breached virus protection and quarantine rules and undermined the city’s contact tracing work.
The church denies responsibility despite hundreds of its members testing positive for coronavirus after the rally.
Prosecutors are also probing Shincheonji, a quasi-Christian doomsday sect. Its followers were at the centre of the first wave of Covid-19 infections to hit South Korea in February.
As part of sweeping social distancing restrictions to stop the disease spreading, all large religious gatherings have been mostly banned for much of the pandemic.
Twenty per cent of South Korea’s 52m people identify as Protestant and 8 per cent as Catholic. The country trails only the Philippines and East Timor for the highest percentage of Christians in Asia.
Minah Kim, a professor and expert on religion in South Korea at Incheon National University, said Christian denominations had long been “intertwined” with politics. They held close ties to the military dictatorships following the brutal Japanese occupation and the Korean war, and were also pivotal to the democratisation movement in the 1980s.
Prof Kim said the growing popularity of Christianity in the latter decades of the 20th century ran in parallel to the country’s rapid economic development. Religion was “emotionally filling” for the millions of poor workers who had left their homes to find jobs in the new factories and ports that drove the country’s economic transformation, she added.
Today, about 40 per cent of the country’s 300-member National Assembly are Protestant.
The period also spawned controversial megachurches which are typically autonomous groups with thousands of members and charismatic leaders.
Despite being a distinct minority, the views expressed by rightwing groups with links to some churches are given high-profile exposure in the national media.
Church leaders such as Jun Kwang-hoon, Sarang Jeil’s senior pastor, draw comparisons to the evangelical preachers in the US who have boosted support for President Donald Trump.
They play important roles in social debates, opposing changes to gay rights, abortion and refugee policies. The megachurch leaders also back closer military ties with the US and a tougher policy against the regime of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
Last month, as the daily coronavirus infection rate hit its highest point since March, forcing school and business to close, Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s president, met a group of church leaders in a bid to win their co-operation with the government’s efforts to control the pandemic.
“Prayer or services can bring peace to the mind, but they cannot defend against the virus. All religions should accept that quarantine is not the domain of God, but the domain of science and medicine,” said Mr Moon, who is a practising Catholic.
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Despite the president’s overtures, many church groups continue to meet in person.
Lee Sung-hee, a lawyer for Sarang Jeil, said the anti-government rallies last month were aimed at “protecting the constitution”.
“Pastor Jun and other older, respected pastors have strong faith that they should defend our country from communism. They strongly oppose President Moon’s leanings towards some communists,” said Mr Lee.
Choi In-shik, the secretary-general of a rightwing group organising more rallies in October, said it was a “sheer lie” for officials to blame the virus outbreak on the protests.
“Banning public rallies because of a disease did not happen even under dictatorship ,” he said. “This is our duty as democratic citizens to criticise and guard against the government.”