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World News

Governments called to consider religious freedom in light of coronavirus crisis

by Heather Preston

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIF) has raised concerns that some governments are overlooking the human rights of faith groups in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

A factsheet, published this week by the bipartisan federal commission reviews the international laws on freedom of religion and practice that can come under threat during a public health crisis.

"Since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in December 2019, governments have begun implementing various public health interventions to control the spread of the illness. These interventions have impacted billions of people worldwide and often involve large public programs, restrictions on freedom of movement, and government management of critical resources," it reads.

It comes as the total number of confirmed cases across the globe reaches over 246,000 and over 10,000 deaths.

"It is important for governments to account for religious freedom concerns in their responses to COVID-19, for reasons of both legality and policy effectiveness. From a legal perspective, international law requires governments to preserve individual human rights, including religious freedom, when taking measures to protect public health even in times of crisis," it adds.

The report highlights key countries where a societal response to Covid-19 has impacted the freedoms of religious groups.

USCIF cites South Korea's Shincheonji Church of Jesus - a religious movement of over 30,000 members, as an example. It claims the group, viewed by many as a cult, has faced "considerable criticism and even harassment from the South Korean government and society," after some two thirds of cases of coronavirus in the country were linked to a member of the congregation who had tested positive for Covid-19.

"South Korean authorities asked the Shincheonji church for a list of all members. 

"Church leaders publicly offered assurances that they would comply, but some South Korean news outlets accused the church of privately instructing members to lie about their affiliation," the report says.

Shincheonji churches in the capital of Seoul were then locked down by local authorities.

The report states that the movement has been accused of deliberately spreading the disease by Protestant groups and has had its role in the outbreak exaggerated by the media.

A criminal investigation has also been launched against church leader Lee Man-hee, into charges for homicide by "wilful negligence."

USCIF says a number of members have begun experiencing discrimination and abuse due to their affiliation with the church while 1.2million people have signed a petition calling for the religious group to be banned. 

The report states: "In relation to COVID-19, WHO emphasized that in the response to this pandemic, 'all countries must strike a fine balance between protecting health, minimising economic and social disruption, and respecting human rights' in an effort to curtail the spread of the virus." 

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