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Korean Christians jailed for obstructing church demolition

Sarang Jeil Church members allegedly defied a demolition order for church redevelopment and injured government officials

Members of conservative right-wing and Christian groups take part in an anti-government rally in Seoul on Aug. 15, 2020

Members of conservative right-wing and Christian groups take part in an anti-government rally in Seoul on Aug. 15, 2020. (Photo: Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images)

Published: November 04, 2023 04:33 AM GMT

Updated: November 04, 2023 04:42 AM GMT

A South Korean court has convicted and jailed 14 Presbyterian church members accused of violently obstructing the execution of a demolition order for their church for redevelopment purposes and injuring government personnel.

Lee Jong-kwang, chief judge of the Seoul Northern District Court on Nov. 1 sentenced Sarang Jeil Church members to varying jail terms between 6 months to 3 years, Yonhap News agency reported.

Terming the incident as the first one to occur in 36 years, Lee said that the accused were challenging the rule of law in the country.

“This is the first case since the constitutional amendment in 1987 in which the execution of a court decision was virtually neutralized by violence,” Lee said.

“It is a direct challenge to the authority of the court decision and the rule of law,” Lee added.

The accused received a mix of varying sentences including jail time, probation, and community service.

Jeon Kwang-hoon, a right-wing pastor and a member of the Sarang Jeil Church was given 3 years in prison.

Jeon had served as the president of the Christian Council of Korea and was expelled from the national alliance for his controversial speeches and his behavior in 2022.

Three of the accused received two years, five received one-and-a-half years, and five others received eight-month jail terms respectively.

Another member, only identified as Kim was handed down a sentence of eight months in prison, two years of probation, and ordered to perform 160 hours of community service.

The alleged violence occurred on Nov. 6, 2020, when members of the church had stopped judicial and police personnel from initiating a demolition of their church building.

According to evidence presented in court, the accused had resorted to throwing Molotov cocktails and stones at the government officials. The members had also used iron pipes to beat up the officials.

The move to demolish the church building had come after Jeon had lost a lawsuit against the Jangwi District 10 Redevelopment Association in May 2020.

“Economic greed”

Reportedly the church had later opposed the demolition citing compensation issues which resulted in physical clashes with executive assistants whenever the union attempted forced execution.

Lee pointed out that the accused were acting out of greed rather than a need for survival.

“It is not a matter of an individual’s right to survive but is for the economic greed of a religious group,” Lee said.  

The behavior of the group “is judged to be fatal from the perspective of protecting the foundation of our community’s existence and the Constitution,” Lee added.

The Sarang Jeil church had demanded around 50 billion Korean Won (US$37.8 million) as compensation which was six times higher than the appraised rates, News Directory 3 reported.

The church’s demand for compensation was later rejected by the court.

Not a role model behavior from pastors

Lee pointed out that the violent actions of the accused who were pastors and evangelists was shocking to the people, Yonhap reported.

"It was a great psychological shock to ordinary citizens to see people who are believed to lead our society mentally and spiritually engaging in battlefield-like fighting scenes for economic greed or other political purposes,” Lee lamented.

The government officials had attempted to execute the demolition order thrice before the final attempt led to a violent clash resulting in one of the executive assistants getting injured and being hospitalized for 12 months.

Lee pointed out that the responsibility for the clashes fell upon the shoulders of the church members who led the protest.

"It is acknowledged that the execution assistants caused injuries during a physical fight with church members,” Lee said.

“But the primary responsibility for this incident lies with the church, which obstructed the execution,” Lee added.

Some of the church members in the audience were seen crying, while others outside the courtroom were heard calling the judges “leftists” and “communists,” Yonhap reported.

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