A health official sprays disinfectant near Sarang Jeil Church, a coronavirus infection cluster, in Seoul on Aug. 18. (Photo: AFP)
A Protestant church has hit back at South Korea’s government after being blamed for causing a surge in coronavirus infections in capital Seoul.
Sarang Jeil Church said it will file a criminal complaint against the country’s health minister and acting Seoul mayor Seo Jeong-hyup for spreading wrong information.
Its lawyers have refuted claims that the church obstructed contact tracing by not revealing the names of its members.
Health officials found 457 coronavirus cases linked to the church led by pastor Jun Kwang-hun, a critic of President Moon Jae-in, AP reported on Aug. 18.
South Korea reported 288 new Covid-19 cases of infection on Aug. 20 that were traced to Seoul and the surrounding Gyeonggi province.
Many of Sarang Jeil Church’s members are reported to be in hiding and cannot be traced by authorities.
Fears are growing that the virus’s spread could worsen after thousands of protesters, including members of the church led by Jun, marched in central Seoul in an anti-government rally on Aug. 15.
Jun, who was not wearing a mask and shared a microphone with several anti-government activists on a stage, tested positive for Covid-19 on Aug. 17 and is receiving treatment at a Seoul hospital.
The 63-year-old and his church members are accused of violating self-isolation rules by participating in the rally.
President Moon termed their march an "unforgivable act that threatens the lives of the people."
The Korean Herald reported that Jun told his followers earlier this year that it was "patriotic to die from illness."
He is also charged with defamation for calling President Moon a North Korean spy, Yonhap reported.
On Aug. 18, the government banned all religious gatherings in churches in Seoul and the surrounding areas, which draw flak from conservative religious groups.
All Sarang Jeil Church members who participated in services between July 27 and Aug. 13 were asked to undergo a Covid-19 test and undertake self-quarantine.
The government said it would seek compensation from the church and Jun for their non-compliance.
More than 44 percent of South Koreans identify themselves as religious, according to government data. Nearly 63 percent of them follow a Christian denomination. President Moon himself is a practicing Catholic.
Opponents of Moon claim he is anti-religion and accuse him of being a communist for his engagement with North Korea.
At the rally on Aug. 15, Jun claimed that Moon was "handing over South Korea to North Korea."
In February, South Korea faced a crisis when a 61-year-old woman with a fever attended several Shincheonji Church of Jesus events in the city of Daegu, which became the largest epicenter of the coronavirus outside China.
The group was blamed for the spread of the virus after its members stated they were forced to attend jam-packed services even when they were sick.
Shincheonji Church was also blamed for its secretive membership records, which made it difficult for authorities to track the spread of the virus.
Lee Man-hee, the church’s founder, was grilled by prosecutors and arrested on Aug. 1 on charges of furnishing false information and embezzling about US$4.7 million.