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Fundamentalist Christian Church In South Korea At Odds With Government Over COVID-19

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

South Korea brought the coronavirus under control early, but the country is now fighting a second wave of infections. What both waves have in common is conservative Christian churches, whose members make up a high percentage of cases. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul, the epidemic has aggravated conflict between South Korea's liberal government and a conservative movement.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST AMBIENCE)

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Massive protests like this often packed the streets of downtown Seoul on weekends before the epidemic. The marchers are members of a right-wing movement that includes many veterans and evangelical Christians. They wave U.S. flags and hold up posters praising President Trump and disparaging North Korea and China. At the center of the movement is a Presbyterian church called Sarang Jeil, which means love comes first. Church Deaconess Noh Il-soon speaks emotionally of how the charisma of its pastor, Jun Kwang-hoon, drew her to join the church.

NOH IL-SOON: (Through interpreter) If my previous way of knowing Jesus during 50 years in other churches was like licking the outside of a watermelon, then knowing Jesus through our pastor was like splitting open the watermelon and tasting the sweet and juicy fruit inside.

KUHN: Like many South Korean conservatives, Deaconess Noh believes that her country was meant to be a liberal democracy and a Christian state. And she says her church is just trying to keep it that way.

NOH: (Through interpreter) The Gospel cannot coexist with communism. We are still in conflict with North Korea, and there are remnants of North Korean-sympathizer, leftist forces in this country.

KUHN: Politics, not religion, is what makes Sarang Jeil stand out, says Kim Jin-ho, a Seoul-based religion researcher. He notes that the church draws mainly lower-income Koreans.

KIM JIN-HO: (Through interpreter) They blame communists for their sufferings, and communists are very broadly defined to include any liberal political groups.

KUHN: Like the administration of President Moon Jae-in, who favors dialogue with the North. Pastor Jun has accused President Moon of using the virus to tar his church.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JUN KWANG-HOON: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "The government attempted to commit fraud," he said, "by pinning the whole Wuhan virus incident on us."

Pastor Jun ran afoul of the law before the COVID outbreak in his church. He's actually now in jail, charged with illegal election campaigning and libeling the president by calling him a North Korean spy. Then last month, President Moon said the church should apologize to the public for obstructing public health authorities.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT MOON JAE-IN: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "The lack of common sense among a very small group," the president said, "is undermining the credibility of all Korea's churches."

Authorities have now linked 1,100 infections to the Sarang Jeil church. They accuse Pastor Jun and his followers of attending a banned antigovernment rally last month, to which more than 500 COVID cases have been linked. Police have raided Sarang Jeil headquarters to obtain membership lists. Researcher Kim Jin-ho adds there's also an economic angle to this story. He points out that pastors of small churches in South Korea live off donations, which they don't get if worshippers don't come to church.

KIM: (Through interpreter) When economic pressure in churches grows bigger because of online services, the churches resist government orders and become a threat to disease control.

KUHN: Like President Moon, Kim argues that infection clusters in churches are making them look like dangerous places to the general public. And that's why the researcher sees the Sarang Jeil church becoming a liability to the larger conservative movement in which it plays such a prominent role.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.