In South Korea, which has recorded the third-highest number of coronavirus cases outside China, a so-called mysterious Christian cult has been linked to the spread of the disease. One particular member of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, dubbed “Patient 31”, has even been referred to as a “superspreader”, thought to be responsible for spreading the infection to many others.
Earlier in March, the South Korean government asked for a murder investigation into the leaders of this religious sect. The authorities claim that the church is liable for their refusal to cooperate, while others have blamed the church’s secretive nature and tightly packed conditions for the spread of the disease.
According to The Korea Times, the Shincheonji church was founded in 1984 by Lee Man-hee and the religious group, which is often referred to as a cult has over 120,000 followers. Various other news reports put the number of followers of the church to somewhere between 2-3 lakh. The group came under scrutiny in 2007, when a television investigative report revealed that the followers believed that Man-hee has eternal life, The Korea Times report said.
According to a Financial Times report, before he founded Shincheonji, Man-hee was a member of other fringe churches.
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Outside China, after Italy and Iran, South Korea has the highest number of cases, at roughly 8,000. Up until now, the country has recorded over 66 deaths from the virus, according to WHO’s latest situation report on the pandemic.
Significantly, the highest number of cases on South Korea have been reported from the city of Daegu, at 5,500 cases as on March 14, which authorities suspect are linked to the church. Out of these 5,500 cases in Daegu, the Korean Centre for Disease Control (KCDC) has linked over 4,300 cases to the church. Overall, the KCDC maintains that over 60.5 per cent of all the cases in South Korea can be traced to the church.
Recently, the group has apologised for its role in the outbreak and has claimed that it is cooperating with the authorities. An official notice on the Shincheonji Church’s website says the following, “All of Shincheonji Church of Jesus, including Chairman and people of duty, are working night and day to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by actively cooperating with the government, local governments and the public health authorities.”
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In late February, hundreds of thousands of South Koreans filed an online petition demanding the forcible dissolution of the church.
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