Conference on forced change of religion in Seoul
On 29 November 2019, the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR) from Italy and Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF) from Belgium hosted a seminar in Seoul which was titled: “Intolerance and Discrimination Against New Religious Movements: An International Problem.” It highlighted the practice of forced change of religion by non-state actors in the United States and in Europe (in the past), in Japan and South Korea.
Prominent professors and scholars from the US and Europe covered this issue from various angles:
Gordon Melton is the Distinguished Professor of American Religious History at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He is the author of more than 50 books on religious studies, including The Encyclopedia of American Religions, Religions of the World. A specialist in the study of new religions, he has authored multiple texts on the issues surrounding “cults” and anti-cultism.
Holly Folk, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Western Washington University in the US. In 2019, she has served as Program Chair for the Association for the Sociology of Religion annual meeting. She has lectured and published extensively on new religious movements, religion in Eastern Asia, new Christian groups and communal studies. She has published a number of academic papers on new religious movements (NRMs) in China.
Eileen Barker, Professor Emeritus of Sociology with Special Reference to the Study of Religion at the London School of Economics (LSE). Her main research interest is minority religions. She has around 350 publications (translated into 27 different languages). In 1988, she founded INFORM, an educational charity providing information about religions. She is a frequent advisor to governments, other official bodies and law-enforcement agencies around the world.
Rosita Sorytè, is the co-founder and head of the International Observatory of Religious Liberty of Refugees (ORLIR). She is the author, inter alia, of “Religious Persecution, Refugees and Right of Asylum,” The Journal of CESNUR, 2(1), 2018, 78–99. She graduated from the University of Vilnius in Lithuania and has served on behalf of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania at the Permanent Mission of Lithuania to UNESCO, the Permanent Mission of Lithuania to the Council of Europe, and the Permanent Mission of Lithuania at the United Nations. In 2011, she worked as the representative of the Lithuanian Chairmanship of the OSCE at the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. In 2012–2013, she was the chairperson of the European Union (EU) Working Group on Humanitarian Aid on behalf of the Lithuanian pro tempore presidency of the EU.
Massimo Introvigne is the founder and the managing director of the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR) in Turin, Italy. He is also the editor-in-chief of the daily magazine Bitter Winter on religious liberty in China. He is the author of more than 70 books and several hundred peer-reviewed articles in the field of Sociology of Religions, mostly devoted to new religious movements. In 2011, he served as the Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office on Combating Racism, Xenophobia and Discrimination, also Focusing on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians and Members of Other Religions.
Willy Fautré, is the director and founder of Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF), which is a Brussels-based NGO that was established in 1989. Before then, he was a chargé d'affaires at the Cabinet of the Ministry of Education and the Belgian Parliament. He started defending religious freedom in Communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe during the Cold War in the mid-1970s. He is a lecturer in the field of human rights and religious freedom. He has published a wide range of papers in academic journals about discrimination and intolerance targeting and stigmatizing NRMs and their members. Additionally, he has carried out fact-finding missions in more than 20 countries.
Forced de-conversion in South Korea, also known as “deprogramming” by scholars in religious studies in the U.S. and in Europe, is a social issue that involves kidnapping and forcing de-conversion in sequestration conditions. It is usually organized by pastors and evangelists in their crusades against so-called “heresies”.
More than 80 participants including legal experts, journalists, and civil society representatives reviewed the current situation of forced de-conversion and discussed solutions to defend the individual right to religious freedom.
Massimo Introvigne, who co-organized the Seoul seminar, stressed that forced change of religion in South Korea is conducted by mainstream churches: “Korean ‘deprogrammers’ are specialized pastors from the mainline churches, most of them Presbyterian.”
“The recent protests of the Shincheonji Church that commemorated the death of two victims of forced change of religion 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’ by Presbyterian pastors and evangelists even after their death,” he said. For the Shincheonji Church alone, there were 131 cases in 2018 and 96 in the first nine months of 2019.
Willy Fautré, who co-organized the Seoul seminar, shared his experience in Japan where several years ago he interviewed over 20 victims of this human rights violation. Through subsequent advocacy efforts, he aided in eradicating this practice together with Toru Goto who was detained for years by his family with the complicity of Evangelical and Pentecostal deprogrammers.
In the last few months, HRWF has interviewed victims of attempts of forced change of religion targeting members of the Shincheonji Church in South Korea and has published these cases. At this seminar, Willy Fautré compared the situation in South Korea and in Japan, and concluded that:
“As in Japan, this devastating practice could also be eradicated in South Korea if a multi-dimensional strategy is implemented. HRWF recommends:
- raising awareness within the international community of scholars in religious studies, national and international human rights organizations, as well as national and international media;
- highlighting the responsibility of the Presbyterian Church which tolerates, endorses and appears to encourage such practices;
- developing advocacy at the UN and in bodies defending freedom of religion or belief within the EU institutions, national institutions in Europe, the U.S. Department of State, USCIRF, etc.;
- prosecuting those who encourage people to perpetrate an act of abduction and confinement.”
An open letter was initiated by CESNUR and signed by 15 international NGOs including the UN accredited NGO Freedom of Conscience (CAP) and HRWF. It was addressed to the South Korean President Moon Jae In on July 24th, and stated that “South Korea may well be the last democratic country in the world where deprogramming is still tolerated.” It asked the President to “investigate in-depth accusations of forcible deprogramming, put a stop to this abhorrent practice, and hold those responsible fully accountable.”