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South Korea: Christian sect with secret religious practises spread coronavirus across the country, criminal charges to be filed against the cult

The authorities want to investigate whether due to cult's unorthodox religious practises and taste for secrecy, it has put lives at risk during the coronavirus outbreak. More than 5,000 people have been infected and at least 28 deaths to date in South Korea, the largest cluster of infections outside of China. 

The investigators in South Korea are planning to criminally charge 12 executives of the controversial Shincheonji Church of Jesus for the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the country, the disease that results from the coronavirus, France 24 reports.

According to the reports, the 80-year-old Lee Man-hee, 80, leader the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a secretive religious sect often described as a cult, will be charged by South Korean investigators for the propagation of COVID-19 (Coronavirus disease 2019) in South Korea. Eleven other executives of the movement are also in investigators’ sights.

Lee Man-hee, who fancies himself the new “messiah” and the leader of a South Korean sect linked to more than half the country’s 4,000-plus coronavirus cases had also apologized for the spread of the disease.

“I would like to offer my sincere apology to the people on behalf of the members,” said Shincheonji head Lee Man-hee.

The 88-year-old twice got down on his knees to bow before reporters in Gapyeong, his head to the floor. “Although it was not intentional, many people have been infected,” he said. He added, “We put our utmost efforts but were unable to prevent it all. I seek the forgiveness of the people.”

The authorities want to investigate whether due to cult’s unorthodox religious practises and preference for secrecy, it has put lives at risk during the coronavirus outbreak. More than 5,000 people have been infected and at least 28 deaths have happened to date in South Korea, the largest cluster of infections outside of China.

The virus spread in South Korea after a 61-year-old woman who was a member of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in the city of Taegu was diagnosed with the symptoms. The elderly lady is considered to be at ground zero of the explosion of COVID-19 cases. The Korean health authorities believe one in five of the people infected by the coronavirus can be linked to her.

The woman first went to the hospital on February 7 after a minor traffic accident. During that tests, she complained of a pain in her throat. She then returned to the hospital a few days later for treatment of a persistent fever. The doctors had twice recommended that she submit to coronavirus screening.

However, the woman had refused to take a test both times. Later, her health continued to deteriorate and 10 days later on February 17, doctors examined her more closely and diagnosed a COVID-19 infection.

In the meantime, the patient had managed, twice, to leave the hospital to attend the Sunday gatherings of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus. Each time, she had contact with a thousand fellow faithful.

“Her behaviour is not surprising to people familiar with the church,” said Chung Yun-Seok, a South Korean expert on religious cults. “To them, getting sick is a sin because it prevents them from doing God’s work,” Seok added.

Shincheonji Church of Jesus: A cult of secrecy

The discovery of infection in Taegu and the link made with the Shincheonji Church of Jesus has been a turning point in South Korea’s coronavirus battle. The authorities believe that the very secretive practices of the sect have resulted in members’ keeping their membership secret from their relations, even from their parents.

“To Shincheonji members, their priority is not the safety issue but rather protecting” the church, Ji-il Tark, a Busan Presbyterian University theology professor who studies the group revealed.

Initially, the church executives were accused of a lack of forthrightness, but later, officially, offered assurances that they were cooperating completely. However, they had sent messages to members asking them to lie about their membership in Shincheonji Church if contacted.

The groups religious practises is considered to be the reason for the rapid spread of the virus. The group members meet often in small halls, where they are huddled close together. The members are not allowed to wear any accessories on their faces as such practices are considered insults to God.

In addition to that, participating in weekly meetings is mandatory, even in case of illness. The members of the movement must record every detail during the prayer meeting, allowing executives of the group to monitor devotees’ diligence.

With the church head now apologising for the spread of the virus, there are growing demands seeking a ban on the cult. A petition signed by more than a million people has been presented to the South Korean government requesting the dissolution of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, which counts more than 260,000 members.

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