This article originally appeared on VICE Asia.
Over one weekend, hundreds of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) cases were reported in South Korea, bringing the total number of cases in the country from around 200 on Friday, February 21, to more than 760 on Monday, February 24. Now, South Korea is an extraordinary new hotspot for coronavirus cases outside of mainland China.
On Sunday, February 23, South Korean President Moon Jae-In issued the highest level of national alert regarding the outbreak. The last time the “red alert” was declared was more than a decade ago, during the 2009 swine flu epidemic.
At the center of South Korea’s dramatic coronavirus outbreak is an enigmatic religious group in the city of Daegu called the Shincheonji. The Shincheonji Church of Jesus, formally known as the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony, belongs to a religious movement founded by Lee Man-hee in 1984. Now 88 years old, Lee is a revered personality believed by members to be the second coming of Christ. The Shincheonji has 12 branches in South Korea and 150,000 followers.
As of Monday, February 24, 490 cases of coronavirus in South Korea are linked to the Shincheonji. According to the Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare, around 9,300 Shincheonji members have been isolated and are being tested for the coronavirus. However, several hundred Shincheonji members remain unreachable.
According to those familiar with the Shincheonji church, members are aware of the church’s bad reputation and usually try to hide their religion from non-members.
“For them, the fear of being outed as a Shincheonji follower is bigger than the fear of getting ill from the virus,” a former Shincheonji member told The Washington Post. This would explain why they have gone into hiding.
“They must be huddled together somewhere, praying that this will eventually go away,” a pastor who studied the Shincheonji said to The New York Times.
The exponential increase of coronavirus cases in South Korea is believed to have been caused by a lady known as Patient No. 31, whom authorities call a “super spreader.” She was the first confirmed coronavirus patient of the Shincheonji church in Daegu, and is believed to have started the infection within the Shincheonji community.
She is also known as the “crazy ajumma (auntie)” among Korean netizens because of her refusal to get tested for the coronavirus, despite having flu-like symptoms. Apparently, she also gallivanted about despite being warded in a hospital following a car accident. Instead of staying at the hospital, she went out for lunch at a buffet restaurant and visited a public bathhouse.
Against better judgement, she went to church twice even as her symptoms intensified. A religious cults expert told The New York Times that this behaviour isn’t all that unexpected considering the background of Shincheonji. To Shincheonji members, “getting sick is a sin because it prevents them from doing God’s work,” he said.
In a statement, the Shincheonji church apologised for the sudden outbreak among its members and causing concern, saying that Patient No. 31 simply thought she had a cold because she had not travelled abroad.
The church has since paused all services across the country.
When news first broke about the coronavirus among Shincheonji members, they were allegedly told to carry out their evangelical activities in small groups and deny their associations with the religion, The New York Times reported. However, this claim was later denied by the church. In an internally circulated message that was leaked, Lee, the church’s leader, claimed that the coronavirus is “an act of the devil who saw the rapid growth of Shincheonji and wants to destroy our advancement.”
Some believe that the practices of Shincheonji encouraged the spread of the coronavirus. According to ex-members, churchgoers have to kneel on closely positioned floor cushions and hold hands during two-hour-long services. There is also a habit of food-sharing among the members. Members are told to sing loudly without wearing masks or glasses, and taught to be unafraid of worldly illnesses.
In light of public outrage against the sharp increase of coronavirus cases associated to Shincheonji, an online petition to President Moon calling for the “forceful dissolution of Shincheonji” has garnered over 500,000 signatures.
However, some warn against focusing too much on the cultish practices of the religious movement. After all, “this is essentially not a religious issue, but a medical and health issue,” Hwang Gui-hag, editor-in-chief of religious news outlet Law Times, told The New York Times.
Shincheonji is a mysterious religious group that often finds itself the subject of controversy in South Korea. The legitimacy of Lee, its founder, comes from the claim that he’s the only one who can interpret the metaphors written in the Bible. In 2007, an investigative documentary about the organisation claimed that Shincheonji members believe that Lee is immortal. Members also allegedly severed ties with their schools, jobs, and families to join Shincheonji.
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