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120,000 South Koreans Rally over Coercive Conversion

120,000 South Koreans Rally for Punishment of Pastors Promoting Coercive Conversion Programmes

Protesters demand investigation into the death of a 27-year-old Korean woman and legislation to ban coercive conversion programmes

On January 28, 120,000 citizens gathered in Seoul and other major cities in South Korea to protest against coercive conversion “education” by Christian pastors and to promote the establishment of legal framework to punish violence caused in the name of religion.

The Association of Victims of Coercive Conversion Programs (AVCCP), a Korean–based NGO raising awareness around human rights violations which emanate from religious conflicts, held a rally, calling for the punishment of Christian pastors who hold “consultations” for money and encourage families to kidnap their relatives of different religious beliefs.

Recently, a 27-year-old woman, Ms. Ji In Gu was kidnapped and confined in a recreational lodge, and found dead after she was allegedly suffocated by her parents.

The AVCCP says that the death is a typical case of coercive conversion, based on the following evidence:

•Ms. Gu was unreachable after having told her friends that she would attend a family gathering;

•The lodge where she was found dead had been reserved for a duration of three months;

•Physical violence between Ms. Gu and her parents resulted in her death. Her parents said that she suffocated whilst they were persuading her.

This was not Ms. Gu's first experience with coercive conversion programmes. In July 2016, she was taken to a Catholic monastery for 44 days and forced to have “conversion education” by a pastor. She presented a petition on, “closure of ‘cult consulting agencies’, legal punishment of pastors who carry out coercive conversions, and the establishment of a law banning religious discrimination,” to the Korean president through a government website. There has been no official response thus far.

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The AVCCP explained that this kind of illegal activity is disregarded by the police and other authorities because the incidents are “family” or “religious” problems. It further said that the crimes are usually carried out by family members, whilst the pastors, who are the driving force behind the conver-sions, escape legal punishment.

“Violent behavior including kidnapping, confinement, and assault cannot be justified. There is an urgent need for punishment against pastors who lead coercive conversion programs in order to avoid the deaths of more citizens and other negative consequences,” said Mr. Sang Ik Park, president of the AVCCP. “The victims of coercive conversion exceed 1,000. Legal protection and careful attention from citizens is a priority in order to avoid there being further victims,” he said.

According to the AVCCP, coercive conversion has been conducted mostly by pastors from the Protestant churches in South Korea against congregation members of religious groups which the Christian Council of Korea (CCK) label as “cults”.

The CCK is an association of Protestant churches in Korea with a conservative political ideology. The media in South Korea have reported that the practice of coercive conversion enforced by the CCK, should be seen as one of many other controversial issues surrounding the organisation, such as its support for Japanese colonialism, and Korea's previous military dictatorship, and corruption in its elections involving illegal funding.

100, 000 signatures were gathered in support of the online petition for the punishment of those promoting coercive conversion programmes. It was delivered to the Blue House, the residential office of the President of South Korea, but it was deleted from the website and, up to this point, the Blue House has not provided an official response.

The official position of the Protestant churches in South Korea is that complaints regarding coercive conversions are unfounded. They claim that these consultations on “cult issues” are carried out voluntarily at the request of family members of the victims and with the consent of the victims. However, victims report that the “conversion education agreements” are written by force while they are under confinement.

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