Mar 2, 2020

South Korean cult church leader claiming to be Messiah could face coronavirus ‘murder’ charge

Army soldiers wearing protective suits spray disinfectant in front of a branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu ( Newsis/AP )
Lee Man-hee, whose followers believe he is immortal, accused of knowingly providing flawed information to officials

Andy Gregory
The Independent
March 1, 2020

A cult church leader claiming to be the Messiah could face "murder" charges in connection with the worst coronavirus outbreak outside of mainland China.

The majority of cases in South Korea — where the virus has killed at least 18 people and infected more than 3,700 — are thought to be members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus.

Officials have accused the church of exacerbating the outbreak by deliberately failing to provide an accurate list of its more than 200,000 worshippers and thus interfering with government attempts to curb the virus' spread.

Amid growing public outrage, Seoul city government has filed a criminal complaint to prosecutors against the church's leader Lee Man-hee — who himself is awaiting the result of a coronavirus test — and 11 other senior members.

Seoul's mayor Park Won-soon alleged the church's actions amounted to "murder through to willful negligence" in a widely shared Facebook post on Sunday, translated by the Korea Herald.

South Korean law follows the principle of dolus eventualis, meaning a person can be convicted of murder if they foresaw the possibility of their actions resulting in the death of someone but continued regardless.

The church —​ which teaches that only Mr Lee can interpret the Bible's true meaning — strenuously denies all accusations and insists it is the victim of a "witch hunt".

While followers believe Mr Lee is immortal and will take 144,000 people to heaven with him on Judgement Day, some former members have now turned on him.

This week, a group of former worshippers visited district prosecutors and alleged that "by submitting fake documents, he has impeded the government in its epidemiological efforts against the new coronavirus", the Korea Times reported.

The church is also accused of lying about its missionary work in Wuhan, regarded as the outbreak's epicentre.

South Korea's justice ministry said on Saturday that 42 members of the church had entered the country from China since July, with some visiting Wuhan in January. The church had repeatedly denied making new converts in the Hubei city until last week.

The virus was first discovered to have infected a 61-year-old woman dubbed "Patient 31" who had attended services at the church's Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony branch in the country's fourth largest city, Daegu.

The city of 2.5 million people was swiflty put on lockdown, and was likened to a "zombie apocalypse" by one resident. While cases have been identified around the country, it remains the most affected city.

A second outbreak was then discovered at a hospital in Cheongdo county. It soon emerged that several of the church's followers visited the hospital to attend a funeral for Mr Lee's brother.

Shortly afterwards, the church said it had closed all of its 74 sanctuaries in South Korea and told followers to instead watch its services on YouTube.

"We are deeply sorry that because of one of our members, who thought of her condition as a cold because she had not travelled abroad, led to many in our church being infected and thereby caused concern to the local community," it said in a statement.

At Shincheonji, attending church-related gatherings "isn't an option, but a requirement," Ji-il Tark, a professor of religion at Busan Presbyterian University in South Korea, previously told the Associated Press.

Mr Tark said Shincheonji followers are more vulnerable to virus infections as they often sit very closely together on the floor during services.

While all of the church's members have now been interviewed by officials, according to the BBC, roughly 9,000 of them are displaying symptoms.

While the church now acknowledges the virus, a recording emerged of one leader having previously said: "No Shincheonji member in Wuhan has contracted the virus thanks to their faith."

As public anger over the outbreak grows, some members have said they fear being outed as Shincheonji followers.

"We're being treated like criminals. We had a bad image before and now I think I'd be lynched if passers-by knew I belonged to Shincheonji," 26-year-old Ji-yeon Park told The Guardian.

"Our church didn't invent the virus. This is just an excuse to shift blame. Throughout history, minority groups have always been blamed for bad things happening in society. The same is happening to us."

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