- Lee Man-hee, the founder and spiritual leader of Shincheonji Church of Jesus, held a news conference on Monday and apologized for South Korea’s coronavirus outbreak, which has, in large part, been traced to the religious sect’s Daegu city branch.
- “We made our utmost efforts, but were unable to prevent it all,” said Lee, as the country’s COVID-19 cases surpassed 4,300 people. Twenty-six patients have died, officials say.
- Shincheonji found itself at the center of a spike in COVID-19 cases after a 61-year-old churchgoer in Daegu tested positive and caused a “super-spreader” event.
- Korean health officials have found that Lee’s older brother’s funeral was held at a Cheongdo County hospital where a second cluster of coronavirus cases – and the country’s first COVID-19 death – occurred.
- Lee organized the news conference after Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon announced a lawsuit against 12 of Shincheonji’s leaders “for murder, injury, and violation of prevention and management of infectious diseases.”
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The man at the helm of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus apologized on Monday for the role played by his followers in South Korea’s coronavirus crisis.
“Although it was not intentional, many people have been infected,” Lee Man-hee said, per Buzzfeed News. “We made our utmost efforts, but were unable to prevent it all.”
Lee, 88, is the founder and spiritual leader of Shincheonji, which has 250,000-plus members to its name.
The South China Morning Post reported that Lee, who was wearing a face mask during the press conference, also sought “forgiveness” from the South Korean people and its government. Images from the news conference outside a church facility in Gapyeong showed him bowing his head while on his knees.
As of Monday, the coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, China, has infected nearly 90,000 people and led to over 3,000 deaths. South Korea has been the worst hit outside of mainland China. More than 4,300 people are sick and 26 have died, according to the Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).
'Super-spreader' event causes surge in COVID-19 cases
Shincheonji found itself at the center of a spike in COVID-19 cases in South Korea after a 61-year-old woman, who is a member of the group's Daegu branch called Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony, tested positive. The KCDC believes the woman triggered a "super-spreader" event that could have infected at least 43 people.
The woman, dubbed "Patient 31," ignored her symptoms despite nationwide calls for coronavirus testing because she thought she had a common cold, authorities said. Despite being sick, she attended prayer sessions on two consecutive weekends. That later forced Daegu officials to ask over 1,000 churchgoers to stay home and isolate themselves from their families.
A second cluster of cases occurred in nearby Cheongdo County and the KCDC is investigating a possible connection between Shincheonji and the hospital where people got sick and South Korea's first coronavirus-related death occurred. Believers view Cheongdo County as hallowed ground because Lee was born there, Reuters said, noting that Lee's older brother's funeral was recently organized at the hospital where the second cluster of COVID-19 cases sprung.
News also emerged that a senior health official in Daegu waited until after he tested positive for coronavirus before disclosing that he was, in fact, a Shincheonji member. A local policeman and school teacher did the same.
And a kindergarten teacher in Wuhan revealed that Chinese members had been meeting in Hubei province until December, possibly ignoring rumblings of a pneumonia-like virus outbreak.
As the church-related COVID-19 cases mounted, Shincheonji leaders shared the names of members with authorities and shut down church facilities.
Coronavirus is the 'devils' deed'
Lee initially lashed out about his sect's responsibility in the spread of the coronavirus.
"This disease case is the devil's deed to stop the rapid growth of Shincheonji," Lee said to other members in February, according to Reuters.
In a statement to Insider on Sunday, Shincheonji USA noted that "many of the group's critics are relishing in the negative attention leaving church leaders to refute baseless rumors spread by reputable media outlets both local and overseas."
The statement also denied other reports about Shincheonji. Members aren't pressurized into abandoning their jobs and familial relationships or to believe in a "Messianic 'apocalyptic' sect shrouded in secrecy," it said. It's also untrue that churchgoers have denied COVID-19 testing, are hiding from authorities, and are prohibited from using face masks.
"At a time when members should be regarded as victims and administered aid, the Church as a whole is experiencing local and national discrimination, unable to gain building licensing and facing scrutiny for practicing their Christian faith," the statement continued, stressing that followers do not view Lee as a God.
However, Lee Duck-sure, a Christian pastor who leads a counseling center for ex-Shincheonji members in South Korea's capital city of Seoul, offered a different perspective, according to Reuters
"It may appear Christian, but is actually completely different," he told the news outlet. "They revere founder Lee Man-hee as a savior, like Jesus."
'The chief director of this crisis'
The antagonism leveled at Shincheonji has been dialed up recently because an estimated 60% of South Korea's COVID-19 patients are linked to the church's Daegu branch. This ill-will was on display outside Monday's news conference, with people yelling "cult" and shouting at Lee to dissolve Shincheonji, Reuters said.
Lee decided to speak to reporters after Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon filed a lawsuit against Shincheonji's top brass "for murder, injury, and violation of prevention and management of infectious diseases," CNBC reported.
"We can handle the COVID-19 situation as soon as possible only when we forcefully investigate the twelve branch heads of the Shincheonji sect along with Lee Man Hee, the Chairman of the sect," Park said on Facebook, CNBC sai.
He continued: "The situation is this serious and urgent, but where are the leaders of the Shincheonji, including Lee Man-hee, the chief director of this crisis?"
Park also issued a separate statement on the mayoral website, calling on federal prosecutors to "carry out a rigorous investigation" and hand down "strict punishment on the Shincheonji leadership that is at the center of this crisis," per CNBC.
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