Korean Christians seek action against virus-spreading sect

Two Protestant groups want leaders of a neo-Christian sect arrested for their role in the fast spread of Covid-19
Korean Christians seek action against virus-spreading sect

Lee Man-hee, leader of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, bows during a press conference at a facility of the church in Gapyeong on March 2. He sought forgiveness after his sect was held responsible for the fast spread of coronavirus in South Korea. (Photo: AFP)

Mainstream Christian groups in South Korea have sought action against a neo-Christian sect accused of spreading the coronavirus that has claimed the lives of 54 people in the country.

When the virus began to spread in mid-February, authorities traced the infection to people who attended crowded prayer programs of a sect called Shincheonji Church of Jesus in the Daegu area. 

Two mainstream Church groups — the National Council of Churches in Korea and the United Christian Churches of Korea — have asked the government to investigate leaders of the Shincheonji Church.

"The government should clarify facts about the spread of the infectious disease, arrest Shincheonji leader Lee Man-hee and other leaders and investigate their actions," they said in a joint statement on March 6.

The Protestant groups alleged that the secretive doomsday cult had been intentionally withdrawing information about its 200,000 followers, resulting in the spread of the infection.

According to South Korea's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Shincheonji followers accounted for almost 60 percent of 7,513 cases in the country, most centered in Daegu, the base of the controversial sect.

The death toll had reached 54 on March 10, the government body said.

Seeking forgiveness

The Protestant groups said the Shincheonji sect is trying to buy more time to manipulate its list of followers.

"The majority of Shincheonji believers are not only the victims of this incident but also the victims of faith, which is a cult and fundamentally fake," the groups said.

The Protestant churches, however, did not blame the followers of the fringe group.

Lee Man-hee, the cult's 88-year-old founder-leader, spoke of coronavirus as the "devil's deed" to stop his church's growth.

But last week he went down on his knees seeking "forgiveness" for the spread of the virus in the country with a population of 51 million.

During a press conference outside the sect's headquarters on March 2, the cult's leader admitted that he never expected something like "this even in my dreams. I seek the forgiveness of the people."

During tight-knit Sunday gatherings, Shincheonji followers sit close to each other on the floor and put arms around each other's shoulders as they pray and sing. They are also banned from wearing face masks during prayer services.

Authorities say a woman attended such prayers even after she had symptoms of infection, causing the rapid transmission of the virus among its followers.

Shincheonji followers are expected to hide their membership even from family members.

Government crackdown

The Seoul metropolitan government has shut down all Shincheonji-related facilities under its jurisdiction for quarantine.

The government has also filed a complaint against Lee and other Shincheonji executives, accusing them of homicide and violation of the disease prevention law.

Choo Mi-ae, South Korea's justice minister, has ordered an investigation of the case. The Home Ministry has also initiated a probe to find out the activities of the secretive church.  

A petition uploaded on the presidential office's website gathered more than 1.2 million signatures from people supporting the forcible dissolution of the sect.

In a survey, more than 86 percent of respondents said they wanted a search and seizure operation on the Shincheonji group.

The sect alleged that it is being targeted by people using the virus as a tool. 

"We are making efforts with a sense of great responsibility … but the fight against the coronavirus is being used as a political tool" against the sect, it said in a statement on March 9.

The sect had offered to donate US$10.1 million to the government's containment efforts but the government turned down the offer on March 6.

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