In South Korea, Opaque Sect Draws Scrutiny With Virus Spike

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(Bloomberg) --

An obscure religious sect in South Korea is drawing global attention after being linked to a sudden spike in coronavirus infections.

The group, called the Shincheonji -- which translates to “new heaven and land” -- accounted for at least 230 confirmed cases of the virus in South Korea. The country reported on Saturday another 229 cases to raise the total to 433.

Of the latest cases, 100 were linked to the sect while 114 were tied to an outbreak at a hospital near Daegu where a funeral for the brother of the sect’s leader was held earlier this month. Just last Tuesday, a person known to have been a member of the sect accounted for the country’s 31st case.

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in asked the health authorities to conduct an in-depth investigation into the funeral. “We shouldn’t rely simply on the information that Shincheonji offers,” Moon told his Cabinet members Friday. “Let’s investigate thoroughly the attendees of its services and the funeral.”

During worship, Shincheonji members sit on the floor, elbow-to-elbow and knee-to-knee, in services that typically last one to two hours. South Korea’s health authorities say such close proximity for long periods may have caused the infection to spread rapidly among the congregation. The country’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday that it is examining the ties between branches of the sect in South Korea and in areas of China including Hubei province.

The religious movement was founded in 1984 by Lee Man-hee, now 88, who claims to be an immortal prophet sent by Jesus Christ to prepare for the end of the world. It counts about 300,000 followers at some 600 locations in 29 countries, stretching as far as South Africa, the Congo, and Costa Rica. In China, it has seven churches, including in Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai.

The group’s website previously said it opened a church last year in Wuhan, the center of the virus outbreak, though that detail can no longer be found on the site. The sect later posted a statement on its website that while it previously mentioned its presence in Wuhan, it doesn’t have a gathering place or a church building as it switched all its services online in 2018.

In South Korea, Opaque Sect Draws Scrutiny With Virus Spike

Wider Investigation

Korea’s CDC initially advised 1,001 people thought to have attended services with the patient known as No. 31 to refrain from leaving home Thursday. The CDC is widening its investigation and said it has been screening more than 9,300 members of the sect and so far nearly 1,300 showed symptoms for the virus.

The Seoul Metropolitan Government said it will shut down all four Shincheonji branches in the city in a preemptive move to prevent further contamination in the capital area, home to almost half of South Korea’s 51.8 million population.

Hong Yeun-ho, who has been leading an anti-Shincheonji campaign after his daughter joined the sect for two years, said hundreds of the church members sit on the floor in a tightly woven line.

“Only those who have completed a six-month education on the sect and formally enrolled as members can attend their services,” Hong said.

All members must register their finger on a scanner to enter an office building where the services are held, a process Hong said makes them feel chosen and proud. Attendants remain seated on their knees throughout the service, chanting Amen and singing en mass, he said.

The sect’s founder claims to have royal bloodline, even though he was born into a poor farming family. A guiding star led him to meet “a spiritual being from heaven,” the sect says.

“Lee later found out that he himself was the messenger sent from above to pass on the complete Revelations to the churches on the land,” the sect said on its website.

Numerous calls to Shincheonji -- whose full name is Church of Jesus, the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony -- went unanswered. On its website, the group reacted to reports about the spread of the virus.

“Media are reporting as if we’re the main culprit of the virus spread, calling the way we do the service unique, whereas the reality is that we have to sit on the floor only to accommodate as many people as possible in a confined space,” according to a statement.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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