Is coronavirus hampering religious freedom rights worldwide? USCIRF explains

Published 18 March 2020  |  
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A Chinese health worker checks the temperature of a woman entering a subway station during the Chinese New Year and Spring Festival on January 25, 2020, in Beijing, China.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is calling on world governments to account for religious freedom in their responses to the coronavirus outbreak, citing concerns with some government and societal responses to the crisis.

"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," reads a factsheet written by USCIRF policy analysts Scott Wiener and Dominic Nardi and USCIRF International Legal Specialist Kirsten Lavery.

The factsheet, published Monday by the bipartisan federal commission, reviews the international legal framework "surrounding the limitation of religious freedom on the grounds of public health."

The document provides examples from the current pandemic where religious freedom issues and public health interventions have overlapped.

The factsheet comes as there have been over 204,000 reported COVID-19 cases and over 8,200 deaths worldwide since December, according to Johns Hopkins University & Medicine coronavirus resource center.

According to USCIRF, South Korea "provides a vivid example of how public health emergencies can increase the risk to marginalized religious groups."

USCIRF reports that members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a secretive religious sect that many see as a cult and claims to have over 300,000 members worldwide, have faced "considerable criticism and even harassment from the South Korean government and society."

It all began after a 61-year-old member of the church developed a fever and attended services in Deagu before being diagnosed with coronavirus.

According to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about two-thirds of cases could be traced to the church member as a surge of infections broke out among Shincheonji members.

USCIRF notes that Shincheonji Church has faced pressure from mainline Protestant groups in South Korea.

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