Protest against forced conversions

About 1000 people from across the country gathered in Church Square on Thursday as part of a memorial service and protest in memory of a South Korean girl.

Ji In Gu was kidnapped and confined in a recreational lodge, and found dead after her parents allegedly suffocated her for not wanting to participate in a religious conversion programme.

Local protesters who gathered signed in support of the South Korean citizens who are petitioning their government to close down groups that practise forced conversions. The rally was hosted by the South African correspondent for the Association of Victims of Coercive Conversion Programmes (AVCCP), a Korean-based NGO, and follows similar gatherings of thousands across the world, calling for an end to unlawful coercive conversion programmes and the protection of the right to religious freedom.

AVCCP says Gu’s death is a typical case of coercive conversion, based on evidence that she was unreachable after having told her friends that she would attend a family gathering. The lodge at which she was found dead had been reserved for a period of three months, and physical violence between Gu and her parents resulted in her death.

Her parents said that she suffocated whilst they were persuading her. However, this was not 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.

AVCCP says this kind of illegal activity is disregarded by the police and other authorities because the incidents are family or religious problems, and adds that the crimes are usually carried out by family members whilst the pastors, who are the driving force behind the conversions, escape legal­ ­punishment.

The official position of the Protestant Church in South Korea is that complaints regarding coercive conversions are unfounded, says AVCCP in a statement.

“They claim that these consultations on cult issues are carried out voluntarily at the request of the 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.”

The group now calls for the punishment of Christian pastors who hold consultations for money and encourage families to kidnap their relatives of different religious beliefs. This also follows an event hosted on Sunday 28 January, where 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 a legal framework to punish religious-based violence.

AVCCP president Sang Ik Park says: “Violent behaviour, including kidnapping, confinement and assault, cannot be justified. There is an urgent need for the punishment of pastors who lead coercive conversion programmes in order to avoid the deaths of more citizens and other negative consequences. The victims of coercive conversion exceed 1000. Legal protection and careful attention from citizens is a priority in order to avoid there being further victims.”

Meanwhile, 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 was deleted from the presidency’s website, and up to this point the Blue House has not provided an official response, the AVCCP says.

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