Police officers stand guard in front of a facility of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, as journalists gather for a press conference by church founder Lee Man-hee in Gapyeong, South Korea. The leader of the sect apologized for the spread of the coronavirus in the country, where around half the 4,000-plus cases are connected to his organization. Photo: AFP
Christian churches in China have been calling on the faithful to pay attention to cult penetration from other countries amid the COVID-19 outbreak, during which having religious activities online is encouraged for disease prevention.
Experts and churches say distinguishing the sources of online religious materials is the key at the moment.
“Cult issues have drawn much attention during the COVID-19 outbreak… so we enhanced management and publicity work,” an employee surnamed Wang at the administration office of the Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches and the Christian Council in East China’s Shandong Province, told the Global Times on Friday.
Since the outbreak, churches in Shandong have been using online platforms such as DingTalk to conduct religious activities, Wang said.
He noted that because of the connections between Shandong and South Korea, Shincheonji has also influenced the Christian churches in Shandong. “Pastors in Shandong had known about preventing cults or heresies, but many believers might not.”
The South Korean Shincheonji Church has been linked to at least 2,000 COVID-19 infections in the country, accounting for more than half of the total number of infected in the country.
In early February, the Shandong Three-Self Churches and Christian Council issued a notice, calling on lower-level churches to defend against cults and heresies during the COVID-19 outbreak.
“Their (the cults and heresies) seductive and deceptive means should be recognized, and their publications, websites, WeChat accounts, WeChat groups, videos and apps should be reported to prevent their illegal gatherings and preaching activities,” read the notice published by Shandong’s Three-Self Churches and the Christian Council.
Two urgent notices demanding the prevention of South Korea’s Shincheonji Church to organize “harmful activities” were also released on February 24 and 28 by the Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches and the Christian Council of Northeast China’s Jilin Province.
“Shincheonji is active in Jilin. Local churches should educate and guide their followers to reject Shincheonji,” read the February 28 statement. “Report to public security and religious departments if Shincheonji members’ activities are found.” Jilin is home to 1.14 million ethnic Koreans.
A Beijing Christian surnamed Hu told the Global Times that he and his church have been gathering online for more than one month. They would pray for people affected by the virus.
In Hu’s WeChat group, the administrator warned members to be aware of cult involvement. “Many heresieshave been taking advantage of the epidemic to recruit members and brainwash them,” the administrator said. “Report to the pastors or your group leaders quickly if necessary.”
An employee from the Fengtai Church in Beijing told the Global Times that the church has been closed to the public since January 23, and pastors would make videos preaching to share with the church members. “Pastors often talk about preventing heresies even before the epidemic,” he said.
“It is very likely that many cults would preach and deceive online by using the epidemic situation,” Yan Kejia, director of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Religious Studies, told the Global Times on Friday.
Yan noted that despite distinguishing the religious doctrines, Christians should determine if the sources of the religious materials are from formal organizations.
The State Administration for Religious Affairs in September 2018 released a regulation draft on online religious information and service management, demanding that foreign organizations or individuals be forbidden from providing online religious information and service inside China.
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