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Half of South Korea’s coronavirus cases are linked to a controversial religious organization

One Covid-19 patient attended Shincheonji Church of Jesus services while she nursed a fever.

Disinfection workers wearing protective gears and prepare to disinfect against the novel coronavirus in Daerim Central Market, a neighbourhood with one of the largest Chinese population on February 05, 2020 in Seoul, South Korea.
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

There’s been a rapid spike in coronavirus disease, or Covid-19, cases in South Korea, and about half of the 433 confirmed cases are linked to a secretive religious group often viewed with suspicion by more traditional religious sects.

At least 182 Covid-19 cases have come from the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in the city of Daegu, which is the fourth-largest in the country. The group itself is often considered a cult in South Korea by mainstream churches: it was founded in 1984 by Lee Man-hee, who claims he is the second coming of Jesus.

Lee teaches he is the only person who can interpret the Bible and promises to take 144,000 people to heaven with him on the Day of Judgement. Despite its unorthodox background, the church boasts at least 150,000 members.

There is growing concern the current number of confirmed cases in South Korea — already nearly eight times what it was early last week — will rise. Currently, 6,037 people being tested, and more than 1,250 church members have reported potential Covid-19 symptoms.

The church is at the center of scrutiny in large part because several of these confirmed cases can be traced back to one person: Patient no. 31, a 61-year-old woman who is a devout follower of Shincheonji.

The woman first checked in to a hospital following a small car accident. On the fourth day of her stay, she developed a fever, but refused to get checked for the virus because she hadn’t traveled abroad or been in contact with anyone contaminated. She was finally tested on Monday, and on Tuesday she received positive results. Up until that point, she had slipped out of the hospital at least four times to attend services that attracted up to 1,000 people.

Shincheonji’s method of worshipping during these services could have contributed to the spread of the virus among its congregation, according to the Korea Center for Disease Control. Members are expected to kneel in tight rows and aren’t allowed to cover their faces with items like glasses or face masks.

After patient no. 31’s case went public, church members reportedly received social media messages that encouraged them to continue evangelical work in small groups and to deny their affiliation to the church if public health officials asked.

The church, however, later denounced these messages, claiming they didn’t come from the group’s leadership and that the church member behind the messages had been punished. Church leaders also said that they’ve been fully cooperating with the government’s quarantine efforts, and have closed all of their 74 sanctuaries across the country, providing worship services online instead. In a message to his worshippers, Lee encouraged members to adhere to government instructions and avoid gathering in groups.

“This disease outbreak is the work of the devil, which is hellbent on stopping the rapid growth of the Shincheonji,” he wrote.

Despite these instructions, government officials have faced difficulty in discovering the whereabouts of about 700 Shincheonji members who have yet to be tested for the virus, according to The New York Times. Many members, the Times notes, work to keep their affiliation with the church secret due to negative connotations that surround the organization.

The government is also struggling to figure out how patient no. 31 contracted the virus, though KCDC Director Jung Eun-kyeong acknowledged that the church had invited Koreans from northeastern China to South Korea as part of their evangelical work. She said they were also looking into reports that the organization had opened a church in Wuhan — the epicenter of the disease — although the group has erased all references of it from their website.

The government is taking drastic measures in response to the surge in cases

The rapid rise of confirmed cases in the mere span of a week has led to deep concern among residents of Daegu: Public spaces, such as parks, movie theaters, and stores, are reportedly empty as people avoid them in fear of getting ill.

In response, the government has decided to close thousands of community centers and daycare facilities across the country. The government’s most drastic measure, however, might be the ban on political rallies outdoors — a surprising move considering how such rallies are a common part of daily life in Seoul. Prime Minister Chung Sye-Kyun also discouraged organized religious activities for the near future.

“In accordance with law and principles, the government will sternly deal with acts that interfere with quarantine efforts, illegal hoarding of medical goods and acts that spark uneasiness through massive rallies,” Chung said, according to Korea Times.

However, this public announcement hasn’t done much to stop large public gatherings. Several conservative groups continued to hold political rallies in Gwanghwamoon on Saturday — which is considered the center of all political activism in Seoul and has hosted demonstrations daily — to call for the resignation of President Moon Jae-in (although to be clear, these conservative groups have tried to push the liberal president out of the office even before the Covid-19 began to spread).

The demonstrations reflect scenes that health officials remain particularly worried about and that Chung’s announcement was meant to minimize: elderly people in close proximity together outdoors. Under city law, the organizers of rallies could be fined up to about $2,500.

The ban on public gatherings comes as the government works to limit the spread of Covid-19 among another population that lives in close quarters: There are currently at least three confirmed cases — one each from the army, marines, and air force — in the country’s 600,000-member military. All three servicepeople either recently visited or were stationed in Daegu.

In response, the military launched a mass quarantine of all soldiers who were in contact with the three sick troops, and has announced it will also shut down all vacations and visits indefinitely.

The effort is part of the government’s strategy for fighting Covid-19 on a new front, now that it’s rapidly spread throughout the nation Chung said: “Our efforts until now had been focused on blocking the illness from entering the country. ... But we will now shift the focus on preventing the illness from spreading further in local communities.”

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