South Korea Seizes Personal Info from Thousands of Americans in Coronavirus Probe

Korean coronavirus investigation leaks could threaten religious liberty in US

South Korean medical workers near the Daegu branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu, South Korea / Getty Images
August 30, 2020

The South Korean government has seized the personal information of thousands of U.S. citizens as part of its investigation into a controversial Christian group in the country, alarming religious freedom advocates.

The Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a religious group that counts more than 300,000 followers worldwide, has come under intense scrutiny after South Korean authorities traced the country's first large-scale coronavirus outbreak to its services in February. Authorities, who are pursuing murder charges against the group's leader, collected the personal information of U.S.-based Shincheonji practitioners, including passport numbers and addresses, after seizing a list of all its followers. The data seizure has alarmed American practitioners of the faith, particularly after public leaks of that data led to death threats against believers.

"There is a genuine sense of fear that there will be a lot of repercussions, you know, socially, and also professionally," Michelle Lee, an American Shincheonji practitioner, told the Washington Free Beacon. "In South Korea, the list of congregation and congregant's information has been leaked and people have been receiving death threats, messages, calls, verbal assaults in person."

The South Korean government did not return request for comment.

The Shincheonji controversy has alarmed U.S. officials and religious freedom experts, some of whom have expressed concerns that Seoul is using the pandemic as an opportunity to crack down on a religious group that is widely disparaged as a cult. The issue also serves as a case study of what happens when well-intentioned pandemic policy ends up infringing on religious freedom.

The same dispute is playing out in the United States, though religious leaders have avoided the intense scrutiny South Korea has directed at Shincheonji. Some U.S. politicians have cracked down on religious rituals more harshly than other types of gatherings. New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, for example, singled out an in-person Jewish funeral procession on Twitter as "absolutely unacceptable," but endorsed jam-packed Black Lives Matter protests. Churches in Wisconsin and California have filed lawsuits challenging restrictions on worship that have not been applied to protests or commercial activities.

Public antagonism is nothing new for the Korean sect, which was founded in 1984. Shincheonji has attracted heated criticism from more mainline churches, which accuse the group of isolating believers from family members and society. Critics often point to the group’s mandatory Bible boot camps for new recruits, as well as the church’s controversial teaching that ascribes a messianic role to its founder, Lee Man-hee.

Even before the pandemic, employers fired Shincheonji practitioners, and family members shunned them, according to Massimo Introvigne, an Italian sociologist who has studied the group. Public outcry only grew when authorities accused the sect of being responsible for South Korea's first coronavirus outbreak in February. Although church founder Lee Man-hee apologized in a press conference, the South Korean government soon seized all of the data of Shincheonji practitioners—a dataset that included information of American practitioners.

The South Korean government provided the seized data to multiple hospitals and pharmacies; leaks soon followed. Public revelations have already led some Shincheonji practitioners to lose their jobs. While it is unlikely that U.S.-based practitioners would face the same degree of harassment in the United States, Introvigne said that Korean-American Shincheonji practitioners might face backlash from their community if their religious affiliation is exposed.

"If they are Korean Americans with relatives in Korea, or they are in a Korean community in the U.S., it could be dangerous to be exposed as a member of Shincheonji," Introvigne said.

James, a U.S.-based Shincheonji practitioner who did not provide his full name for fear of reprisal, said he did not tell his family about his faith for eight years. His parents have threatened to disown him since the data seizure and ensuing leaks. He worries that other followers in America might be put into similar predicaments if data leaks continue.

"My parents, who had a previous suspicion … even contacted my employer to verify and to see if they knew about my affiliation with the church as well," he said. "My parents have threatened to disown me, and continue to stalk different forms of social media and some of my Google and other forms of navigation information to really try to find out what I'm doing."

The South Korean government's crackdown on Shincheonji has raised alarm among U.S. observers as well. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom wrote that "South Korea provides a vivid example of how public health emergencies can increase the risk to marginalized religious groups," concluding that the church has faced harassment from both the Korean government and society.

James said he understood the South Korean government needed to take action to fight the pandemic, but said the overzealous response was an "overstep by the Korean authorities," adding that the government was exploiting the pandemic to settle scores with an unpopular religious group.

"The coronavirus response...still has to respect basic human privacy rights, basic human rights and religious freedom," he said. "As much as contact tracing is innovative, it was done in a way where the blame has been shifted on minority religious organization."