SEOUL: With the number of coronavirus cases skyrocketing in South Korea in the past week, a local fringe Christian sect has been blamed for the growing outbreak.
As of Wednesday, a total of 1,261 people had tested positive with 12 deaths reported. Just a week ago, the number of infected persons stood at 50. However, South Korea has seen by far the highest number of the Covid-19 cases outside China.
Health authorities believe the Shincheonji Church of Jesus is at the heart of the alarming spread of the pandemic, as more than half of the confirmed cases have been found to be linked to the religious sect, which is widely regarded as a cult.
“The mass infections came after Shincheonji followers took part in the Feb. 16 service and had frequent contacts around that time,” Jeong Eun-kyeong, director of the Korean Center for Disease Control (KCDC), told reporters on Wednesday.
Most of the confirmed cases are in the city of Daegu, about 300 km southeast of Seoul, where large services for Shincheonji members were held on Feb. 16. Thousands of worshippers are believed to have attended, authorities said.
The other cluster of infections is a hospital in Cheongdo, a neighboring county of Daegu. Shincheonji members are also known to have visited the hospital, according to the KCDC officials.
Officially called the Shincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony, the group was founded in 1984 and claims to have around 240,000 followers worldwide.
Shincheonji followers are taught to believe that Lee Man-hee, the founder of the organization, is the second coming or the returned Christ. The church claims the Bible is written in metaphors which only its founder can correctly interpret.
Critics say the group’s secretive nature and the manner in which it worships could have lead to the fast spread of the virus.
“They hold services sitting packed together on the floor and kneel very close to one another,” Shin Hyun-uk, director of the Guri Cult Counseling Center, said.
Shin was a member of the cult for 20 years until 2006 and has been leading a campaign to extract members from the church ever since he realized that “the group was not a normal religion.”
Shin said the Shincheonji churchgoers shout out “amen” at the top of their lungs “after every sentence the pastor utters.”
“While holding services, worshippers send respiratory droplets flying everywhere, causing the virus to be transmitted easily,” he said.
Most members of the church hide their membership, which means the virus goes undetected, Sin warned.
“Few families of the Shincheonji members know their sons, daughters, wives, husbands and parents were taken in the cult religion. I guess only 20 to 30 percent of the family members of the Shincheonji worshippers would recognize it,” he said. “That’s the key reason health officials have difficulty in tracking and curbing the virus being transmitted from worshippers to others.”
A 61-year-old female member of the sect tested positive for the virus last week, but initially refused to be transferred to a hospital so as not to reveal the fact that she had attended Shincheonji gatherings.
A Daegu health official responsible for quarantine also revealed he is a Shincheonji member after being tested positive.
Critics say uncovering the identities of Shincheonji members will be difficult since the group conceals the names of politicians, public officials and other celebrities.
Amid growing public anger at the sect, the group said at the weekend that it will fully cooperate with government investigations.
On Tuesday, officials broke into the group’s headquarters in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi Province, to discover a full list of members for quarantine measures.
The government said it has secured a list of 212,000 Shincheonji worshippers and will begin conducting coronavirus tests on those who have respiratory symptoms.
Over 800,000 people have signed an online petition since Saturday after it was filed on the website of the presidential office of Cheong Wa Dae.
Authorities are looking into how the disease was first transmitted to the group. More than 9,000 Shincheonji worshippers have been put under quarantine.
The Seoul government has been scrambling to contain growing expressions of public anger.
As of Wednesday morning, over 400,000 South Koreans had signed an online petition calling for President Moon Jae-in to be impeached.
Petitioners say Moon failed to halt entry to visitors from all parts of China, only prohibiting the entry of foreigners from China’s Hubei province, where Wuhan, the center of the outbreak, is located.
Meanwhile, the US Forces Korea (USFK) reported on Tuesday that it had detected the first infection in one of its troops. The 23-year-old soldier is stationed at Camp Carroll, near Daegu, but has been quarantined at his home off base, according to the command. The development came a day after a widow of a retired US soldier living in Daegu contracted the virus.
“KCDC and USFK health professionals are actively conducting contact tracing to determine whether any others may have been exposed,” the USFK said in a news release Feb. 25.
“USFK is implementing all appropriate control measures to help control the spread of Covid-19 and remains at risk level ‘high’ for USFK peninsula-wide as a prudent measure to protect the force,” it said.
More countries, including Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and Singapore, have started to impose bans on South Korean travelers because of the virus outbreak.