The figurehead of a religious group in South Korea is under investigation by the government in several recent deaths related to the novel coronavirus. The local government in Seoul, the capital of South Korea, has asked the prosecution to charge Lee Man-hee, the founder of Shincheonji Church, along with at least ten others, who they believe were complicit in concealing the names of several members as the South Korean government attempted to keep track of patients and prevent the virus from continuing to spread.
South Korea is currently in the midst of the worst novel coronavirus update outside of China; since the outbreak began, they have reported more than 20 deaths and over 3,700 cases. Over half of all reported cases, however, have involved members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, an extreme Christian group. The Seoul government has stated that they believe that the members of the church had spread the illness to one another in the city of Daegu in February, then spread it throughout the rest of the country as they traveled.
Kim Shin-Chang, a senior member of the church, told Laura Bicker of BBC that he was “very sorry” that the church had “caused concern.” He told BBC that many members were concerned about sharing their identities for personal safety reasons, but that the church has since complied with all requests for the locations of and information regarding its members.
“We were worried about releasing this kind of information because of the safety of our members, but we believe right now the most important thing is to fully cooperate with the government,” Shin-Chang said.
On March 1, the Seoul City government filed a complaint against the 12 leaders of the religious sect, claiming that the leaders were guilty of homicide, causing bodily harm, and violating the terms of the Infectious Disease and Control Act. Prosecutors are currently reviewing the complaint, and so far, all 230,000 members of the church group have been interviewed.
Nearly 9,000 of these are showing symptoms of the novel coronavirus; among these members is a 61-year-old woman, who is known to have attended multiple church-related gatherings since she began showing symptoms. She has since tested positive and initially refused to be taken to a hospital for testing.
The leader, Lee Man-hee, claims that he is the Messiah; he identifies as the ‘promised pastor’ mentioned in the Bible and founded the Shincheonji Church in 1984. The church currently has a broad following, and members believe that Lee Man-hee will take 144,000 people to heaven with him. The church is known for packing members tightly into small spaces for services, which officials believe sped up the process of the coronavirus spread.
Lee Man-hee has been tested for the coronavirus and is awaiting the results of the test. While the Shincheonji Church remains open and continues to hold events, Roman Catholic churches across South Korea remain closed, Protestant churches have called off Sunday sermons, and all Buddhist events have been canceled.
Since the news broke regarding the number of infected church members, anger has risen about the organization’s potential involvement in the spread of the disease; nearly 1.2 million people have signed a petition calling for the dissolve of the church. Seoul city mayor Park Won-Soon had warned that he would file a claim with the chief prosecutor’s office and have the sect leader arrested.
The mayor followed through with his statement, and filed the claim against the religious leaders for homicide by willful negligence; while this does not mean that the religious leaders will automatically face charges, it does mean that the prosecution will continue to review the case before deciding what, if anything, to charge the church officials with.
While the global impact of coronavirus has wreaked havoc on South Korea, many consider the Shincheonji Church a cult that has the potential to place millions in danger. The prosecution should conduct a thorough investigation, but should also work closely alongside the national government in making sure that they have all the necessary information and can address the concerns of the public.
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