Mayor Park Won-soon accused leaders of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus of putting lives at risk by failing to initially cooperate with authorities’ efforts to stop the fast-spreading illness officially known as COVID-19.
The mayor is asking Seoul’s central district prosecutor’s office to launch an investigation into key Shincheonji leaders on charges of homicide by willful negligence and violating the country’s infectious disease control laws. The prosecutor’s office is currently reviewing the mayor’s criminal complaint, Reuters reported.
“The prosecutors need to carry out a rigorous investigation and make sure it leads to a strict punishment on the Shincheonji leadership that is at the center of this crisis,” Park said in a statement, according to a translation by NBC.
At least 60% of South Korea’s over 4,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus’ branch in the city of Daegu, The New York Times reports.
Local politicians have accused Shincheonji leaders of missteps during the early days of the disease’s spread ― claiming the church failed to provide authorities with a full and accurate list of its members and buildings.
Shincheonji’s 88-year-old spiritual head Lee Man-hee knelt, bowed and apologized to South Koreans during a press conference on Monday, calling the virus’s spread a “great calamity.” He said he regretted that so many patients were tied to his church, but denied that its leaders’ actions contributed to the disease’s spread.
“We did our best but were not able to stop the spread of the virus,” Lee said, according to Reuters.
Lee founded the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in 1984. It now claims a global membership of around 245,000, according to The Wall Street Journal. Followers consider Lee to be a prophet promised in the Bible and a descendant of Korea’s ancient kings. Some members believe he is immortal.
At the church’s services, members sit shoulder-to-shoulder on the floor in tight rows. (The church has said this seating arrangement stems from a desire to maximize attendance). Former members report being pressured to attend services even when sick. The church also places a priority on recruiting newcomers, sending proselytizers to busy street corners, university campuses, and to more mainstream Christian churches.
Traditional South Korean Christian denominations consider Shincheonji to be a cult and are wary of its proselytizing tactics, The New York Times reported. Shincheonji, on the other hand, has claimed it is being unfairly persecuted by mainstream Christian churches.
In a message sent to church members last week, Lee blamed the spread of COVID-19 on “the evil who got jealous of Shincheonji’s rapid growth,” The New York Times reported.
A 61-year-old Shincheonji member is believed to be a link in many of the COVID-19 cases. She attended two church services in February while feeling sick, The Wall Street Journal reported, and later tested positive for the virus. At least 1,000 church members attended one of those two services, according to The New York Times.
As news of the woman’s case spread, social media messages from a Shincheonji leader instructed members to deny that they belonged to the church if officials asked, The New York Times reported. The church later said that those messages did not reflect official policy.
The religious group has closed and disinfected its facilities, according to CNN.
Shincheonji gave authorities an initial list of 210,000 members last week, but civic groups and local politicians claimed the list was not exhaustive and contained inaccuracies. The church has since submitted an additional list of 65,000 recruits.
Kim Si-mon, the church’s spokesman, said that its members have faced discrimination since the outbreak began.
“Many church members were afraid to come out and reveal their church members, given the overwhelming blaming coming from politicians and news media that called Shincheonji the originator of the virus outbreak,” Kim told The New York Times.
As of Monday, at least 26 people have died from the novel coronavirus in South Korea. The country’s outbreak is the largest outside mainland China, where the disease first emerged. Italy and Iran have also been significantly impacted by the virus.
COVID-19 has infected more than 87,000 people globally, killing over 3,000.