Today, I hope we can sit down and talk together. I am very glad to have leaders from Korea’s Protestant churches here at Cheong Wa Dae. Some of the participants have traveled far despite today’s very bad weather from the typhoon. I believe all of you are joining us out of like-minded concern for our country and the people who face truly difficult situations. I am grateful to you all.
In the course of Korea’s development throughout various hardships, Protestant churches have played an immense role. In the late Joseon period when we lagged behind the times, they led Korea’s enlightenment by introducing modern education and medical services. During Japanese colonial rule, they also played a tremendous part in capacity-building campaigns and the independence movement.
Even after liberation, Protestant churches spearheaded Korea’s modernization and pro-democracy movement. Especially when the country was not able to implement welfare policies properly due to poverty, they assumed a leading role in private-sector welfare as well.
Many church members have been voluntarily working on flood damage recovery and collecting donations recently, thereby becoming a source of great strength for those suffering. When it comes to the efforts to overcome COVID-19, most churches have switched to online worship services while complying with the Government’s epidemic prevention and control guidelines. I am deeply grateful to our church leaders for overseeing such active cooperation even though it has never been easy.
However, some churches still insist on conducting services on site. In particular, one church has refused to follow the Government’s epidemic prevention policy and has actually obstructed our efforts. So far, nearly 1,000 of that church’s congregants have tested positive for COVID-19. In addition, there are almost 300 confirmed cases traced to the rally on August 15 in which members of that church participated. Consequently, Korea’s response to COVID-19 – which has been seen as a model for the world – is suddenly facing a crisis, and the entire country is suffering tremendously. The everyday lives of people who had just started to feel a little safer are also crumbling.
After so much deterioration – even if their actions were unintentional – they should at least feel sorry and apologize to the people. However, on the contrary, they continue to spread conspiracy theories, raising their voices to this day like perpetrators blaming innocent victims. Furthermore, they are still refusing to cooperate with the Government on epidemic prevention and control measures. The problem is that the damage is compounding still while they refuse to disclose their participation in the August 15 rally or their travel histories. Nonsensical, incomprehensible acts are happening in the name of the Church in some quarters. This is hurting the entire population, but I believe it is the Protestant Church itself that has been most directly and significantly harmed. The lack of common sense among a very small group is undermining the credibility of all of Korea’s churches.
About half of the COVID-19 resurgence that started in August is tied to those churches. I fully understand why some churches and their congregations insist on conducting in-person services. In times of difficulty, Christians rely on God even more and wish to pray more earnestly. They also believe that God will listen to their prayers, protect them and their relatives and save our society.
However, this virus makes no distinctions when it comes to religions or faiths. No one can escape the fact that if you come into close contact with someone infected or do not wear a mask, you yourself will be infected. Services or prayers may bring peace of mind, but they cannot protect people from the virus. I believe all religions should accept the fact that epidemic prevention and control does not belong in the realm of faith but that of science and medicine.
The inability to worship normally must cause tremendous suffering. Still, I hope that everyone can join forces with the realization that cooperating to rapidly bring this disease under control while enduring such suffering is the quickest way to return to normal worship and religious life. In particular, I would like to ask all church leaders to shepherd well.
Making matters worse, collective action by the medical community is bringing more anxiety and pain to the people. The world now refers to the struggle to control COVID-19 as a “war.” It is, so to speak, the largest crisis that has caused the most extensive damage since the Second World War.
Once war breaks out, even the soldiers on leave or away from camp rush back and grab their guns. I believe that medical professionals who stage a walkout during this current COVID-19 crisis are akin to soldiers deserting the battlefield in wartime. Put another way, it is like firefighters going on strike in front of a blaze during the largest fire in our history.
Now, medical students are refusing to take the national licensing examination. If this were to actually happen, the students themselves would suffer enormous damage and the country would also sustain huge burdens and losses. I believe – and expect – that our medical community will never turn a blind eye to the suffering that COVID-19 is inflicting on the people.
Nonetheless, while the Government intends to hold sincere talks with the medical community, we have no choice but to also act in accordance with our laws and principles. As such, we do not have many options to choose from. Our religious leaders are not only the heads of churches but also respected elders for society at large. You are in a position where you can form public opinion across the entire nation and also raise public consciousness. Given that, I ask you to join forces so everyone can come together and overcome the crisis that the entire community faces from COVID-19 as soon as possible.
I believe you may have many issues that you would like to discuss, not just related to overcoming COVID-19 but also the future of our society. I look forward to hearing some good insights today. I would also like to ask you to pray continually for our country and people.