After President Trump called the novel coronavirus “the Chinese Virus” in a tweet Monday, an evangelical leader responded by calling the label “unacceptable,” warning that it “instigates blame, racism, and hatred against Asians.”

On Monday, Trump tweeted his confidence in American industries before calling the coronavirus “the Chinese Virus.”

“The United States will be powerfully supporting those industries, like Airlines and others, that are particularly affected by the Chinese Virus. We will be stronger than ever before!”

In a reply, Eugene Cho, a former pastor of a Seattle church who was just tapped to begin leading a large Christian nonprofit group called Bread for the World in July, suggested that calling the coronavirus the “Chinese virus” could be dangerous. Cho said in an interview with The Washington Post late Monday that he was not speaking on behalf of the Washington-based hunger- and poverty-fighting organization and is still living in Seattle, one of the epicenters of the outbreaks in the United States.

“Mr. President: This is not acceptable,” he wrote in his tweet. “Calling it the “Chinese virus” only instigates blame, racism, and hatred against Asians — here and abroad. We need leadership that speaks clearly against racism; Leadership that brings the nation and world together. Not further divides.”

Cho, who was born in Korea and immigrated to the United States when he was 6, said he knows three people who have been assaulted in the past couple of weeks, incidents he believes are tied to the spread of the coronavirus.

“I can’t speak for all Asians,” he said. “I know for myself and my family, we’re not just contending with a health crisis. … There might be backlash verbal and physical.”

He said there’s a growing sentiment that Americans’ fear is intensifying into anger, not just toward those who are of Chinese descent but toward anyone who is Asian. There’s already an undercurrent of animosity, he said, toward people of Chinese descent, which has been exacerbated by recent trade wars.

“I’m not here to call President Trump a racist. I don’t know him. I know some will say I’m being a coward,” he said. “[The tweet was] certainly racialized and very unfortunate.”

Cho, who once led a popular church in Seattle and is ordained in the Evangelical Covenant Church, said he didn’t want to add to chaos but felt he had to address the tweet.

“I pray for him and Vice President Pence,” he said. “We want them to succeed, we need them to succeed. I say this not because I’m eager to pick a bone, but because we want to be able to speak calm and peace into a chaotic situation.”

He said that in speaking out, he’s trying to strike a balance of being pastoral — someone who can provide comfort, peace and affirmation, with being prophetic, someone who’s willing to challenge someone and cause disruption.

“As an outsider from D.C., wanting to work with legislative officials for vulnerable, hungry and poor, we don’t have to be jerks, we don’t have to be demonizing,” he said. “My concern is that our politics informs our theology instead of our theology informing our politics.”

Republican lawmakers have repeatedly referred to the disease, which originated in China, with terms such as the “Wuhan Virus,” “Chinese Coronavirus” and “foreign virus.” In February, the World Health Organization warned against using “harmful stereotypes.”

The United States has a history of identifying immigrants with a disease. For example, during a cholera outbreak in the 19th century, many blamed the Irish, and many became suspicious of people who were Chinese during plague epidemics in San Francisco.

Cho joins the ranks of few evangelical leaders who have spoken out against Trump’s actions recently, since many pastors and institutional leaders are afraid of losing their jobs or congregations if they denounce him. In December, Christianity Today magazine published an editorial calling for him to be removed from office after his impeachment.

In the weeks after, Trump tried to shore up his evangelical base with outreach to different evangelical groups. Since news of the coronavirus has spread, Trump has turned his focus to business leaders and medical experts.

Trump called for a day of prayer on Sunday. On Monday, he recommended that people do not gather in groups more than 10 people. The Centers for Disease Control has recommended that groups of 50 people or more do not meet for the next eight weeks, meaning many churches, synagogues and mosques will likely cancel in-person services around the holidays of Passover, Easter and Ramadan.

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