Religious leaders call for South Koreans to embrace Yemeni asylum seekers

Posted on : 2018-07-04 17:30 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Ministers warn against the dangers of conservative Christian fundamentalism
Demonstrators calling for tolerance and acceptance of Yemeni asylum seekers gather in opposition to rallies calling for the deportation of “fake refugees” and Muslims in Seoul’s Jongno District on June 30. (Shin So-young
Demonstrators calling for tolerance and acceptance of Yemeni asylum seekers gather in opposition to rallies calling for the deportation of “fake refugees” and Muslims in Seoul’s Jongno District on June 30. (Shin So-young

Protestant ministers are drawing attention for their efforts actively calling for reflection from Christians on the issue of Yemeni refugees, sending the message that exclusion of the asylum seekers is “not the will of God” amid claims that organized opposition to Yemeni refugees from some conservative Christian groups has helped foster a wider climate of anti-refugee sentiment in South Korea. With these efforts, calls to heed a humanist message and overcome the “Islamophobia” fostered by megachurches and others are now echoing from within the church.

In a July 3 telephone interview with The Hankyoreh, Rev. Jeong Seong-jin of Kwangsung Presbyterian Church stressed that Yemeni asylum seekers “are human beings ahead of being Muslims – travelers who have found their way to us.”

“It is the teaching of Christianity and the command of God that we are to be kind to orphans, widows, and travelers,” he added.

Jeong also noted Jesus’ teachings that those who “visited the imprisoned, fed the hungry, and clothed the naked were doing those things for Him.”

“We should be clothing and feeding [the Yemeni asylum seekers] and reviewing [their refugee status]. To say ‘no’ simply because they are Muslims is prejudice,” he continued.

“It is deplorable when the refugee issue is approached solely in religious terms,” he added.

It is not only Protestant ministers calling on South Koreans to reach out to asylum seekers from a different religious group.

“South Korean churches have Christ’s gospel backwards,” said Rev. Lee Taek-hwan of Christ Hope Church.

Lee also expressed concerns about baseless Islamophobia.

“There is a fear that if Muslims come to South Korea, Christianity will become perverted and lose influence, but that isn’t true,” he said. Criticizing churches that object to Yemeni asylum seekers as “quaking in terror at a few hundred powerless Muslims in South Korea,” he said, “There is no reason for them to ignore the Muslims who have come here asking for help, and at the same time go overseas to evangelize to Muslims who never asked to be helped.”

Some observers pointed to the particularly “exclusionary” attitude of South Korean churches as an explanation for their leading role in opposing asylum seekers.

“The emotions that underlie South Korean Protestantism are anxiety and fear,” said Lee.

“Just like their knee-jerk suspicions and fears about North Korea, they are afraid something ‘terrible’ might happen if they do nothing about homosexuality and Islam,” he said.

“They don’t really know anything about LGBT people, and yet they say that AIDS will spread and society will be corrupted if we leave them alone. In the same way, they make up false stories about the Yemeni asylum seekers, accusing them of being ‘fake refugees’ or coming here to spread Islam,” he added – suggesting a vicious cycle in which fear breeds “fake news” that is then shared among congregation members, reinforcing their fears.

”The presence of Yemeni asylum seekers has laid bare the shame of South Korean society”

Some ministers have begun using their sermons to call on South Koreans to be accepting of Yemeni asylum seekers and respect diversity. In a sermon for his Sunday service on June 24, Rev. Kim Gi-seok of Chungpa Church said, “The presence of Yemeni asylum seekers has laid bare the shame of South Korean society.”

“We live in a world where diversity is respected, yet we remain exclusionary toward those who are unfamiliar to us,” he said.

Kim also noted that “a majority of those adding their names to a Blue House petition against recognizing [the Yemeni asylum seekers’] refugee status said that they were Christians.”

“It is not human for us to exclude people based on cost calculations and predictions about the ‘chaos’ they will bring. That is especially true for Christians,” he said.

“All fundamentalists are dangerous, no matter what the religion is,” he stressed, calling for caution against attitudes portraying the entire Islamic faith as a “demonic religion.”

Issues with “fundamentalism” within the Protestant church have long been a focus of criticism. Rev. Lee Hong-jung, general secretary of the National Council of Churches in Korea (NCCK), said the exclusionary attitudes toward Muslims represent “a widely held view for conservative churches with religious fundamentalist leanings.”

“They view [the refugee issue] as a battle between Christian and Islamic civilizations, without any deep understanding of Islamic doctrine or the peaceful everyday lives of Muslims,” he added.

Lee also expressed concerns about extreme bias in “fake news” and simplistic propaganda efforts “aimed at misleading opinion with the Protestant church.”

Spreading messages of tolerance online

Internet users have voiced similar concerns about the objections raised by Protestants against refugees.

“When I look at a petition that says, ‘Are we going to hand the Republic of Korea over to Islam?’ it doesn’t sound like a question anymore – it sounds like the declaration of a crusader who doesn’t want to ‘lose their country to heretics,’” wrote Twitter issuer @JuveBa****.

Many have also taken note of a Twitter account credited to “Jesus Christ,” which encapsulated the Yemeni asylum seeker issue with a satirical message reading, “If they had opposed refugees in Egypt when I was a baby, I would have been killed by King Herod.”

Ministers speaking out with a different message on the refugee issue expressed fears that the exclusionary attitudes by Protestants could end up diminishing the stature of South Korean churches.

“The whole notion of building a wall to keep Muslims out just makes Christianity comes across as a petty and powerless religion,” said Rev. Jeong Seong-jin.

“Now is the time for us to open our hearts toward refugees and broaden the horizons of our understanding,” he stressed.

Rev. Lee Taek-hwan said, “There are things that are the government’s responsibility, and there are all things that are the responsibility of the church from a ‘disaster response’ perspective.”

“This is an opportunity for us to share Christ’s love,” he added. “We need a resolution at the general assembly level to embrace the refugees.”

In a June 25 appeal on the Yemeni asylum seeker issue, a migrant and human rights council for four major religious groups – NCCK, the Catholic Church, the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, and the Won-Buddhist order – exhorted people to “say ‘no’ to all voices calling for hatred and fear.” Established in 1924 as Korea’s first Protestant alliance, NCCK has broken in the past from the positions of more conservative groups such as the Christian Council of Korea. NCCK has nine member denominations, including the Presbyterian Church of Korea, Korean Methodist Church, and Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea.

By Lee You-jin, staff reporter

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