Cult church at center of coronavirus outbreak in South Korea is shuttered

A Chinese health worker checks the temperature of a woman entering a subway station during the Chinese New Year and Spring Festival on January 25, 2020, in Beijing, China.
A Chinese health worker checks the temperature of a woman entering a subway station during the Chinese New Year and Spring Festival on January 25, 2020, in Beijing, China. | Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

A young man was seen putting “no entry” signs on the doors of a church that is seen as a cult that is at the center of South Korea’s largest coronavirus outbreak in the southeastern city of Daegu, as all of its 9,000 members remained inside their homes Friday amid reports of 142 new cases of the virus, bringing the total in that country to 346.

“All of our 9,000 believers are at home,” the member of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony, told Reuters, which also reported that at least 500 church members in this city of 2.5 million had developed symptoms of the virus as of Friday amid ongoing tests.

The virus has passed on to others mostly through a 61-year-old woman who attended services at the church, which was holding services several times a week until recently.

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The street on which the church is situated now looks unusually quiet.

“When a service was over, thousands of people in the same black suits would emerge from the exterior top floor staircase and come all the way down to the ground because they only have two elevators,” a 28-year-old resident was quoted as saying. “That would go on for more than 10 minutes. Really bizarre if you watch it. There are that many people.”

The church followers reportedly believe that its founder, Lee Man-hee, is the fulfillment of Jesus’ promised second coming and that only Lee can interpret and understand the Bible.

On its website, the church claims, “Currently, the pastor of Shincheonji Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony is creating God’s kingdom of heaven here on earth, exactly as he witnessed it in heaven.”

It adds, “Similar to how Jacob had created the 12 tribes of Israel through his 12 sons (Gn 49), he became the new spiritual Israel who created the 12 tribes which bear 12 crops of fruit every month. This is proof that he is the one who overcomes. (Mt 19:28; Rev 22:1-2)”

In November 2016, the Church of England warned around 500 of its parishes in London about the activities of an affiliate of this church, known as Parachristo, a charity in the U.K. that runs Bible study courses in London Docklands.

In China, where the virus originated, more than 76,000 people are infected and 2,300 have died.

The virus has affected 26 countries and territories outside mainland China, killing at least 11 people, according to Reuters.

World Health Organization’s director-general, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said Friday that while the number of cases outside China is not high yet, infections have emerged with no clear link to China. “I believe the window of opportunity is still there, but that the window is narrowing,” he said, according to The Telegraph.

He added, “We still have a chance to contain it. But while doing that, we have to prepare for all eventualities as this outbreak could go in any direction — it could even be messy — but it is in our hands now. We can still avert any serious crisis.”

The United States has at least 34 cases, and Italy has more than 40 confirmed cases and two deaths.

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