A US branch of the South Korean megachurch blamed for the country’s largest COVID-19 outbreak has hired a lobby shop to raise awareness about what it claims is persecution by the Korean government.
The San Francisco Zion Church hired The Livingston Group on August 17 to “inform” US officials about the “persecution and undue treatment of associated churches” in South Korea and the United States, according to a new lobbying filing. The church is listed as “associated” with the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, whose leader was arrested in early August on charges of obstructing efforts to contain the virus, embezzlement and holding unauthorized religious events.
“As a new and growing denomination, Shincheonji has become prey to misrepresentation and discrimination by mainstream churches and the secular media,” the San Francisco Church said in a statement to Foreign Lobby Report. “Church members are subject to hate speech, organized propaganda, forcible deprogramming, and extreme violence. With the outbreak of COVID-19, persecution of the Shincheonji is intensifying in South Korea and is critically impacting US citizens that are members of associated churches.
“We hope to raise awareness of the misrepresentation and discrimination of the Shincheonji and our privacy concerns as US citizens, and to encourage dialogue on these issues.”
The Korean government accuses the church of hiding information about the group’s members from contact tracers. Some 5,000 members of the group have become infected with the Coronavirus, accounting for more than more than a third of all cases in the country.
According to the filing, the South Korean government’s actions against the church have had “implications for the privacy rights of US citizens.” Livingston is expected to contact US officials and distribute informational materials. It will “seek to encourage the U.S. government to address these issues in an
The agreement is for $8,500 per month for six months and can be renewed for another six months. Livingston received the first installment on Aug. 17.
The contract was signed by Livingston Managing Partner J. Allen Martin and San Francisco church leader Ki Lee. Neither Livingston nor the church responded to requests for comment. Livingston has yet to register any foreign agents on the account.
The Shincheonji Church of Jesus is led by Lee Man-hee, a messianic leader in his late 80s who claims more than 300,000 followers in Korea and abroad who believe that he was sent by God to decipher the secret meaning of the Bible. Government officials and private critics have long clashed with the church, accusing it of being a heretical cult.
Such attacks intensified after the COVID-19 outbreak as President Moon Jae-in blamed the church as South Korea briefly reported the second-highest number of confirmed cases worldwide, behind only China. Government officials faulted the church for allowing maskless congregants to pray close to each other and for delays in sharing information about its members.
The Korean government’s actions against the church have prompted criticism from religious rights groups in the United States and elsewhere. The US Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) for example highlighted the plight of the Shincheonji Church in a March fact sheet about the impact of the global response to the coronavirus on religious freedom.
“USCIRF has received reports of individuals encountering discrimination at work and spousal abuse because of their affiliation with the church,” the fact sheet states. “Meanwhile, a petition to ban the church has received more than 1.2 million signatures. Despite this, Vice Minister of Health Kim Kang-lip has publicly stated that the Shincheonji church has cooperated with authorities and that punitive measures against church members could complicate efforts to contain the outbreak.”
The Livingston Group was started by former Rep. Bob Livingston, R-La., who served in Congress for more than 20 years and was slated to replace House Speaker Newt Gingrich before stepping down in a scandal. The firm also represents the governments of Iraq and Azerbaijan, as well as Ukraine’s association of steel companies.
Update: This post was updated at 8:30 p.m. on Sept. 10 with comment from the San Francisco Zion Church.