SEOUL – A church in South Korea with a messianic leader has been identified as a hotbed of coronavirus cases as the outbreak grows in parts of the country.
The leader of the sect, Lee Man-hee, said all gatherings have been suspended after health authorities linked Lee’s followers to more than two-thirds of all confirmed coronavirus cases in South Korea.
Lee denounced the coronavirus as a “devil’s deed” to curb the growth of his church, which extols Lee as a prophet-like figure who can decode hidden meanings in the Bible before a coming apocalypse. Critics describe Lee’s network as a cult.
Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said 144 of South Korea’s 204 confirmed coronavirus cases were traced to Lee’s secretive religious movement, called Shincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony.
A 61-year-old woman who attended Shincheonji’s branch in the southern city of Daegu has been identified as “patient zero” by health authorities. The woman initially refused doctors’ request that she be tested for the virus on the grounds that she had not traveled abroad recently, KCDC Director Jung Eun-kyeong told a briefing. Before she eventually was tested, she visited a hotel, a hospital and the Daegu church attended by some 1,000 members.
The KCDC director told reporters that Shincheonji services, which often gather followers in crowded spaces, possibly led to mass transmissions.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in called for a full investigation into transmission clusters at the Shincheonji church in Daegu and at a funeral in Cheongdo County.
“A thorough investigation of the church service and funeral attendees is necessary,” Moon said at a meeting with aides early Friday.
Since members of the church attended the funeral, the Cheongdo hospital reported 15 coronavirus cases, including, on Thursday, South Korea’s first death attributed to the virus. A second coronavirus death, that of a woman in her 50s under hospital care, also in Cheongdo, was reported Friday.
Lee, who founded the church in 1984, said the mass infection is “a devil’s deed to curb the rapid growth of Shincheonji,” according to an internal message carried by South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.
Shincheonji said in a public statement Friday that it has closed and disinfected its 74 churches nationwide.
In another statement late Friday, Lee’s group denied “fake news reports” that its followers were instructed to spread the virus to other Christian churches to make the infection a Christianity-wide problem.
The church is thought to have more than 200,000 adherents across the country. Followers equate Lee with the second coming of Jesus to deliver believers from an impending end of days.