South Korea to take legal actions against churches violating coronavirus guidelines

Health authorities, city officials and churchgoers are seen in front of Sarang Jeil Church in the northern Seoul ward of Seongbuk on March, 22, 2020. (Yonhap)

Health authorities, city officials and churchgoers are seen in front of Sarang Jeil Church in the northern Seoul ward of Seongbuk on March, 22, 2020. (Yonhap)

SEOUL: South Korea will take legal action against some Protestant churches for violating the government’s guidelines for preventing the massive spread of the new coronavirus, the prime minister said Monday.

As part of the government’s drive for stricter social distancing, health authorities advised churches to follow quarantine measures, including keeping the distance between followers at least 2 meters while attending services and having their temperature checked.

But some churches, including Sarang Jeil Church in northern Seoul, pressed ahead with weekend religious services, without abiding by some of the guidelines.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said stern government measures, including banning gatherings, should be imposed on churches that have ignored the virus guidelines.

“The churches’ act seriously hurt the safety of not only individuals attending the service but also communities,” Chung said at a pan-government meeting on coronavirus responses.

“Now is an emergency situation that amounts to a quasi-wartime situation. People should not regard the government’s administrative orders as a bluff,” he stressed.

In a public message on social distancing, Chung “strongly” called for religious, indoor sports and entertainment facilities to suspend operations for 15 days on Saturday, calling the next two weeks a “critical” time.

He also warned the government will issue an administrative order to ban gatherings if the facilities do not abide by the virus guidelines when they keep operating.

For facilities that do not follow the orders, the government will take legal action, including closures and filing compensation suits, he said.

 Small-scale cluster infections have been reported at Protestant churches in recent weeks after the bulk of cases tied to the Shincheonji religious sect subsided.

Followers at Sarang Jeil Church, led by now-jailed conservative pastor Rev. Jun Kwang-hoon, closely sat together when they attended the services.

On Monday, the Seoul city government imposed a two-week administrative order on the church, banning it from holding services until April 5.

Mayor Park Won-soon told reporters in a briefing that the city imposed the order after the church breached virus guidelines that include running fever checks, compiling lists of attendees and making sure that congregants sit apart and wear masks.

The city government had earlier warned that it will take countermeasures for churches that do not follow the guidelines and file compensation suits if infections occur.

“More than 2,000 took part in a packed service, (but) the church did not compile a list of the attendees and some attendees weren’t even wearing masks,” Park said, adding that the church did not comply with an on-site inspector’s request to follow the rules.

“(The inspector) asked the church to follow the guidelines, but the church (officials) ignored this and instead verbally harassed the public servant. This is not acceptable,” the mayor said.

Park said that 384 cases of violations were found at 282 churches across the city but all except for Sarang Jeil Church immediately followed the guidelines once they were told to.

Chung, meanwhile, called on health authorities to consider whether to expand stricter screening procedures for arrivals from North America where the number of COVID-19 cases has spiked.

Since Sunday, the government has had all arrivals from Europe tested for the virus and begun to impose a two-week self-isolation period on them. The country also has implemented stricter quarantine steps on all international arrivals.

“The number of visitors from North America is double that of arrivals from Europe,” Chung said. “We need to seriously review whether to take any effective, stronger quarantine measures.”

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