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.The death toll had reached 54 on March 10, the government body said.
Seeking forgivenessThe 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.
Government crackdownThe 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.