South Korean Churches Close for First Time as Coronavirus Cases Hit 2,300

Image: Yun Dong-jin / AP Images

Although March 1 usually marks one of the most joyous services in South Korea, in celebration of Independence Movement Day, an unprecedented number of churches will be closed this Sunday in response to an escalating coronavirus outbreak now second in scale only to China.

“This is the first time that churches are officially postponing services in the 100 years of Protestant history and 200 years of Catholic history [in Korea],” said Won Jae-chun, a professor at Christian Handong Global University in Pohang. “Services and masses have not stopped—even during the Korean War.”

The world’s largest church, Seoul’s Pentecostal Yoido Full Gospel, announced it will broadcast its services behind closed doors to its half a million members. Other megachurches in Seoul with over 50,000 members that are broadcasting services include Sarang, Onnuri, and Myungsung, where one associate pastor has a confirmed case of coronavirus.

Although the Korean government and many denominations have discouraged public worship, as even military drills and political protests—common facets of life in Korea—have been canceled, the decision whether to hold public worship has been left up to each church.

COVID-19 has infected more than 2,300 and caused 13 deaths in Korea since the first reported case on January 20. Worldwide, almost 84,000 cases and 3,000 deaths have been confirmed across dozens of countries, with the vast majority in China’s Hubei province where the disease originated.

This week, the US State Department issued a warning against non-essential travel to Korea. “Americans [in Korea] that I know are mostly trying to not panic,” said Kurt Esslinger, an American Presbyterian Mission coworker based in Seoul. “There is a lot of anxiety right now among all Koreans.”

More than half of the 500 respondents to a survey of the Ministry Data Institute, supported by the Presbyterian Church of Korea (Tonghap) and many Korean megachurches, stated they did not attend a worship service last Sunday because of coronavirus. About two-thirds of those who did not attend service said they worshiped at home, and more than half of those said they worshipped through their church websites or watched one of several 24-hour Christian channels in Korea.

“The number of churches who are turning to online or family worship are increasing over the last two weeks,” said Choi Kyu-hee at the National Council of Churches in Korea. “For churches that are still holding worship, some are measuring temperatures of worshipers at the entrance and requiring masks and hand disinfectants.”

At the epicenter of Korea’s outbreak, with 840 cases confirmed so far (and the Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expecting hundreds more), has been a religious movement called Shincheonji, whose 88-year-old founder Lee Man-hee claims to be the second coming of Jesus Christ. A Shincheonji congregation in Daegu, 150 miles southeast of Seoul, has been closely linked with the coronavirus’s spread, and the city of Daegu has filed a lawsuit against the sect for falsifying its number of followers in responding to the government.

In one week, 1.1 million Koreans have signed an online petition to President Moon Jae-in’s office calling for Shincheonji to be dissolved. (An official response by the Blue House is required for any petition that gathers more than 200,000 signatures in 30 days.)

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Source: Christianity Today