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International Experts Urge Democratic Countries To Pay Attention To Religious Suppression Of Minorities In South Korea

In November, Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR) from Italy and Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF) from Belgium hosted a seminar on human rights entitled “Intolerance and Discrimination Against New Religious Movements: An International Problem”.

This seminar, held in Seoul, South Korea, was devoted to the protection of the rights of religious minorities targeted by the majority groups, particularly in the context of anti-human rights situations such as the forced conversion that occurred in Korea. Forced conversion, also known as “Deprogramming”, is a social issue that causes human rights violations by kidnapping and detaining the members of religious groups labeled as “cults” by their opponents in order to compel them to abandon their faith.

More than 80 participants including legal experts, journalists, and civil society representatives reviewed the current situation of forced conversion and discussed solutions to defend the freedom of faith and human rights that have become the norm of the international community.

Massimo Introvigne, Managing Director of CESNUR as well as an Italian sociologist, stressed that forced conversion is conducted through the mainstream by saying, “Korean deprogrammers are specialized pastors from the mainline churches, most of them Presbyterian."

According to Human Rights Without Frontiers, over 1,200 South Koreans suffered from deaths, family breakdown and mental trauma due to forced conversions committed by the Christian Organization. In a letter signed by 15 international NGOs to South Korean President Moon Jae, they proclaimed: “South Korea may be the last democratic country in the world where deprogramming is still tolerated.” They asked the South Korean President to “investigate in-depth accusations of forceful deprogramming, to put a stop to this obnoxious practice and to hold those fully accountable.” Even though deprogramming has taken the lives of victims since 2007, the South Korean government has not yet responded to the issue.  In the United States and around the world, there is very little public awareness on the subject. While many acknowledge that Christians are persecuted in communist dictatorships like North Korea, a recent UN General Assembly resolution highlighted that religious persecution can also take place in democratic countries like South Korea. 

According to this recent resolution, members of the Shincheonji, a newly rising denomination in South Korea that have recently graduated 103,760 theologians in a special ceremony, have fallen victim to deprogramming. Deprogramming occurs where members of the church are abducted, imprisoned and tortured until they renounce their faith at the instigation of another rival church, in this case the Christian Organizations of Korea.

"The protests that commemorate the victims from forced conversion were mentioned in the 2019 U.S. State Department Report on Religious Freedom, including violations of religious freedom in the year 2018. However, there were new cases of deprogramming even after their death," he criticized.

In an official letter, signed by 15 international NGOs including HRWF, to the South Korean President Moon Jae-In said, “South Korea may well be the last democratic country in the world where the coercive conversion program is still tolerated” and reported the reality of the coercive conversion.

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