It is heartbreaking to know that in the middle of this unprecedented pandemic where all hands are on deck in attempt to possibly stem the flow of the virus and have it defeated absolutely, we have some ill-mannered persons and groups of people engaged in all kinds of abominable activities including stigmatization, discrimination, scapegoating, targeting and even persecuting others for the cause of an outbreak and spread of the disease which amounts to wanton violation of International human rights law.  

Since the pandemic broke in the city of Wuhan, Hubei, China in December 2019, we’ve heard about worrying reports chronicling varying degrees of atrocities being perpetrated by some superior groups against some minority groups in many parts of the world which has received wide condemnation from many people including activists, journalists, CSOs, NGOs, regional and international organizations globally.

Undeniably, there are indications of happenings in many parts of the world that human rights violations are under attack during this period of COVID-19 outbreak.

These signs highlighted a surge in the acts and displays of sinophobia as well as prejudice, xenophobia, discrimination, violence and racism against people.

From Asia to Europe, Africa to America including other continents, discrimination rages against people from these hotspots has been reported. In the midst of these developments there are also fear and misunderstanding stoking hatred worldwide which is hampering efforts in the fight against the pandemic.

As a journalist and a human rights defender, my greatest interest always lies in digging hard to know the hardcore facts of happenings around the world so I can continue to inform the citizenry as well as help amplify their voices, stand up for the vulnerable and the minority groups whose rights are being violated on daily basis, as duty demands.

As an avid reader too, I never joke at all with reading books, newspapers, magazines including online publications. I lay my hands, particularly those ones which sheds light on human rights issues which has become an integral part of me at all times.

Recently, during one of my normal routines of scouting through the pages of a famous International online magazine, I chanced upon an article which sent shivers down my spine.

In fact what I saw was an ‘eyesore’ as I became completely puzzled just after reading the headline and few lines of the lead story.

At first, I found it difficult to believe the story but later, it dawned on me that the facts are correct after I’ve cross checked with some credible online news sources.

To my greatest surprise, I was thrown into shock and utter disbelief to find out that an 89-year-old South Korean and his church are in the hot waters for a crime which sounds stupid to me from all angles. What was the crime? 

According to media reports, the old frail man has been scapegoated for his alleged  involvement in withholding information from the South Korean Government and authorities about church members which they claimed is harming the fighting against the pandemic.

Mr. Lee Man-hee, the founder and leader of Shincheonji Church, a minority religious group in South Korea, is the man in the centre of the whole controversy who is currently facing acute discrimination, and persecution in the wake of COVID-19. The move which violates his human rights and dignity.  

He was subsequently arrested and detained at an unknown location to allow investigations to continue. What kind of investigation is that?

The BBC news portal reported it this way:  “Mr Lee was arrested early on Saturday, following an investigation. A judge said there were signs that evidence related to the case was being destroyed”, August 1”,

What is even more worrying is that the old man in the centre of the hullabaloo was not the only one who found himself in this difficult situation.  

Shockingly, there are over 220,000 members of Shincheonji believers around the world who are equally being harassed by the South Korean Government. In addition, over 5,500 cases of human rights violations including coercive conversion have been reported since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in South Korea. This was confirmed by media reports across the globe.

Also, a peace organization (not-for-profit) founded by Mr. Lee called the Heavenly Culture, World Peace, Restoration of Light (HWPL) has also come under threat of dissolution on same ‘funny’ grounds for contributing to the spread of the coronavirus. Currently, the organization is on the verge of having its legal entity withdrawn by the South Korean authorities, alleging that it is acting as a missionary group. So sad.

When nefarious attacks of this nature are turned into discrimination against the freedom of religion, it can only be described as a national and human shame for that matter.

These issues and more were vividly documented in a statement made to the United Nations Human Rights Council on June 18, 2020, A/HRC/44/NGO/23.

As a truth seeker, I tried to dig deeper into many archives which I could lay my hands on and finally managed to pick up evidence on the stark realities surrounding the happenings of outbreak of COVID-19, its spread and the unjust persecutions which are meted out to the innocent people living within the East Asia nation.

These mind-blowing revelations which I’ll be sharing with you here in a bit were equally corroborated by my sources in Seoul, the capital of South Korea. So have no doubt at all.

Well, it’s obvious, we live in a world where the truth is always hidden from us, not because it does not exist but simply because many people wouldn’t like to be told which our bane is.

This has been my observation growing up as a little kid in a small town called Keta located in the southern part of the Volta Region in Ghana, West Africa. In fact I call it a word of wisdom.

South Korea has been trending and dominating news headlines across the world for the wrong reason since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic hit the country in February 2020.

The whole saga of South Korean Government versus the Shincheonji Church began in February 2020, at Daegu Church of Shincheonji, where Mr. Lee also serves as the Chairman when one of the church members tested positive for COVID-19.  After the news broke, HWPL and Shincheonji have been under the threat of dissolution on the grounds that they have spread the epidemic and obstructed the efforts to contain the virus.

As a result, HWPL is on the verge of having its legal entity revoked for allegedly being a missionary organization in disguise, and on August 1, an arrest warrant for Chairman Lee was issued. The warrant from the court is not a guilty verdict, and efforts are being made to reveal the truth in the upcoming trials. I’ll be very delighted to convey this to you as soon as possible, hopefully in my next article as your humble servant of truth will always do.

Now let’s get the facts here once and now, In the middle of the whole saga lies the conservative fundamentalist brands of the Protestant Church in Korea, which have been wielding both political and social influence as the mainstream churches, classified Shincheonji as a cult to keep in check the rapid growth of Shincheonji.

While hiding behind the parents and siblings of Shincheonji believers, the fundamentalists masterminded the kidnapping and assaulting of Shincheonji members for coercive conversion. They even accumulated wealth from carrying out such illegal acts. Furthermore, they persistently opposed peace work by hampering HWPL whenever the NGO tried to book venues to hold peace events and shouting into megaphones to cause commotions on site. Rather than restoring and practicing love for humanity as they preach, they have no qualms about solidifying their power by colluding with certain political forces to their benefits.

The fundamentalists shift the blame for the outbreak and the spread of COVID-19 to Shincheonji, but their claims are false. Shincheonji has actively cooperated with the South Korean government and the authorities’ measures to combat COVID-19. Also, Shincheonji is a victim of the epidemic and had no intention to abet the virus spreading.

When the government requested personal information (names, addresses, contact numbers, and resident registration numbers) of all members home and abroad, totalling over 200,000, Chairman Lee simply expressed his concern as the leader of the church for submitting sensitive personal information without the individual’s consent. Mr. Lee did not order omitting names from the list. (Ultimately, the list was leaked to the public, causing members of Shincheonji residing in Korea to become an easy target of hate and discrimination in all aspects of life. Consequently, there are over 5,510 cases of human rights infringement as of August 2020. Among the victims were two members, who lost their lives due to persecution at home.

Indeed, the entire humiliating case at hand has attracted unwarranted attention and wide condemnation across the whole world from various International and Regional Organizations, Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and Non-Governmental Organisations including the Human Rights Reporters Ghana (HRRG), a Ghanaian based NGO.

It pushed the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) who responded and expressed its concern for the breach of religious liberty in South Korea and recommended the government to condemn scapegoating and to respect religious freedom in responding to the outbreak.  

Furthermore, over 387 International leaders, religious and human rights NGOs put together have equally intensified calls to officially submit to the UN Human Rights Council a statement calling to stop scapegoating Shincheonji for the COVID-19 crisis.

In United Kingdom, Chairman of International Human Rights Committee, Iftikhar Ayaz said: “The brutal persecution of the members of the Shincheonji church in Korea and the inhumane denial of unregistering their corporation is a horrible negligence of State Responsibility which must treat all citizens equally without any discrimination whatsoever.

He added, “The South Korean Government must honor in practice the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights which emphasizes the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.”

Willy Fautre, Director of Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF), said that the recent attack on Shincheonji can be viewed as an attempt by the fundamentalist Protestant groups in South Korea to weaken and destroy the competitor in the religious market.

Also on August 10, 155 youth-led organizations with one million members from 62 countries around the world equally signed a joint letter addressed to the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the UN affiliates, including the UN Office for the Coordination of the Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and requested that the discrimination against Shincheonji Church, its leader, Mr Lee Man-hee and his peace organization be halted.

In July 2020, eleven (11) NGOs including European Coordination of Associations and Individuals for Freedom of Conscience (CAP-LC) submitted a report for “annual report for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights” to the UN Secretary General at the 44th session in the UN Assembly Human Rights Council. The report titled: “scapegoating members of Shincheonji for COVID-19 in the Republic of Korea.” This report equally condemned the unlawful acts in uncertain terms.

In support of calls for quick action, scholars in the field of religious studies and heads of human rights organizations have also published research and white papers based on findings of objective studies to make known what is true.

But despite all these calls for action, the South Korean Government is yet to react with any critical decision on the matter to back down on its nefarious activities against Mr Lee Man-hee and the over 220,000 members of Shincheonji Church who are being harassed indiscriminately and unduly.

What an embarrassment?  That a country which prides itself  with freedom of religion and where freedom of religion is enshrined in its constitution, its government can allow its constitution to be violated, whereas it clearly states in Article 20, Clauses 1 and 2 that, All citizens will enjoy freedom of religion” and “religion and state will be separated.”

This is highly barbaric and uncalled for and does not promote peace and religious freedom in any way at all.

The question is, what is religious freedom and why is it so pivotal?

According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), religion is the right of people everywhere to heed the call of conscience in matters of religion and belief, living out its dictates openly, peacefully, and without fear.

The bedrock premise behind religious freedom is clear: no individual or entity has the right to force others to act against their conscience or prevent them from answering its call in a peaceful manner.

In line with these standards, Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, expressed alarm at the clampdown on freedom of expression during COVID-19.

She particularly took notice of a disregard in upholding international principles of “legality, necessity, proportionality and precaution” over the service of a legitimate, “least intrusive” public health objective. The reality of these statements cannot be more evident in the case of Shincheonji Church.

According to USCIRF, Shincheonji is facing harassment from the South Korean government and society. Due to the unexpected group infection, Shincheonji Church may have been dealt with poorly. However, the lawsuits and excessive investigations currently conducted in the Shincheonji Church are clearly religious oppression.

Persecution during times of a pandemic is not new. Throughout history, minority religious groups have been blamed and scapegoated for the spread of pandemics. Jews were blamed during Black Death epidemics in Europe in the 14th century. In 1545, religious dissidents in Geneva were blamed for an outbreak of plague.  In India, over 3000 members of the Tablighi Jamaat subsequently spent more than 40 days in quarantine with government authorities refusing to discharge them. The Indian government levelled charges of culpable homicide at Tablighi Jamaat chief Muhammad Saad Kandhalvi when at least six of the group died of the infection after attending an event in March, before the countrywide lockdown.

However, Africa as a continent is not left out of the picture; got its fair share of the damning cake. With stigmatization, discrimination and violence dominating the picture in proportions thwarting efforts at winning the battle against the pandemic which particularly women being the hardest hit. In Cameroon, there have been reports of poor government response to the COVID-19 situation which give rise to stigmatization.

“People are scared of being tested. Quarantined persons bribe their way out of health centres they are kept in, imagine the consequences”, a Cameroonian woman was heard complaining bitterly.

Ghana, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, Egypt and Mali among other African countries have equally encountered similar problems which remains a major blow in the fight against the pandemic.

The question is, isn’t it prudent for the South Korean Government and authorities to concentrate its attention and be committed to the fight against the deadly pandemic rather than engaged in fight with a common church and its leader?

Similarly, it is much better for the good people of this world to unite against a pandemic which is wreaking so much havoc and claiming numerous lives globally rather than shifting attention on attacking each other which leaves much power in the hands of the virus to strike even more.

To ensure violation of freedom of religion cease and peace prevails in the East Asian country, I humbly called on the South Korean President, Minister of Justice, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and the United Nations to take action to protect minority religious groups and the principles of freedom of religion and to respect the UNHRC Statement, document A/HRC/44/NGO/23.  I also called for Mr. Lee to be freed while proper investigation is initiated to put the issue to rest.

I humbly appeal to the UN Secretary General, António Guterres to use his good office to ensure discrimination against Shincheonji Church, its leader, Mr Lee Man-hee and his peace organization cease.

I believe human rights dimensions must be taken into consideration if we are to successfully combat the coronavirus.

Let’s rise up and speak up against the culture of oppression and tyranny being perpetrated by the South Korean Government against the good people of Shincheonji church and its leader Mr Lee and his peace organization, the Heavenly Culture, World Peace, Restoration of Light (HWPL) because injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Let’s ensure that similar actions taking place in South Korea to promote peace be replicated in other parts of the world where these unlawful acts are rearing their ugly heads which violates the freedom and fundamental human rights of people and limits their dignity as humans.

The world deserves to be a better place for all of us to live in and not a war zone where we will be hunting down each one another over trivialities. We all have a responsibility to promote and ensure the protection of human rights at all times, even during this time of crisis

 It is our collective responsibility to make this happen. Let’s face it and be responsible citizens.

Author: Joseph Kobla Wemakor

The writer is a human rights defender, Youth leader and Founder/ Executive Director of Human Rights Reporters Ghana (HRRG).

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