South Korean cult church blamed for COVID-19 says members are being persecuted, killed

Lee Man-hee, 88, chairman of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in South Korea which is seen as largely responsible for the propagation of COVID-19 in that country, apologized for his church's role in the outbreak on March 2, 2020.
Lee Man-hee, 88, chairman of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in South Korea which is seen as largely responsible for the propagation of COVID-19 in that country, apologized for his church's role in the outbreak on March 2, 2020. | Screenshots: YouTube

Leaders of Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a secretive religious sect that many see as a cult and has been blamed for the propagation of the COVID-19 virus in South Korea, say their members are now being attacked and killed as alarm increases over the new coronavirus.

“The witch hunt against Shincheonji Church of Jesus is carried to an extreme, and now that this has incited domestic violence and persecution, leading to the death of one of our congregants, we cannot but express our position,” the church said in a statement Wednesday just days after their chairman, Lee Man-hee, 88, apologized on his knees for their role in the outbreak of the coronavirus in South Korea.

“I cannot find the words to appropriately express my deepest regrets but I decided to hold this press conference because I felt the need to express my deepest condolences and my deepest regrets to the Korean people. As the chairman of Shincheonji, I would like to sincerely apologize to all the people of Korea for this crisis. Although it was not on purpose we have seen a dramatic increase in confirmed patients,” Lee said Monday.

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“To prevent further spread of COVID-19 … the authorities have been hard at work and we at Shincheonji are fully cooperating with officials to stop further spread as well. We will mobilize all of our measures and provide our fullest support in all our areas.”

More than 6,000 people have been infected in South Korea and over 40 have died.

As a part of the organization’s cooperation with government officials, Shincheonji Church of Jesus leaders said they provided a list of all 245,605 congregants as well as trainees to the health authorities at their request.

“We provided the list of 212,324 congregants in Korea on the 25th and the list of 33,281 congregants abroad on the 26th. As for trainees, they have not been registered officially as members of Shincheonji Church of Jesus, so the church could not provide the list of trainees indiscreetly. But on the 27th, the health authorities requested the list on condition that they will take legal responsibility in case it is leaked, so we checked and provided the list of 65,127 trainees (54,176 in Korea and 10,951 abroad) promptly,” it explained.

It further shot down claims that the organization had been intentionally hiding its membership numbers, stating that it was initially hesitant about sharing the data out of concern for the safety of its members.

“Just for the reason that they belong to Shincheonji, two congregants have been killed already, one in 2007 and the other in 2018, both by a family member. For this same reason, another congregant in Ulsan faced violence and persecution by her husband, driving her into taking her own life on February 26,” the church said.

“This congregant of the Ulsan Church had been suffering from domestic violence because of her affiliation with Shincheonji, and shortly before her death, she was assaulted for religious reasons and reported it to the police. Eight days after the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a death was caused by religious persecution.

“We make it clear once again that we did not intend to delay providing the list of congregants or hide it. But it is true that providing such a list was not an easy decision for Shincheonji Church of Jesus. Among our congregants, there are many who suffer from domestic violence, persecution, and even life-threatening situations because of their faith. This is backed by the number of congregants who are taken to so-called Cult Counseling Offices and face confinement, violence, and illegal acts, and the number amounts to more than 100 congregants per year.

“Is not belonging to mainline churches in Korea a reason to die? We call for the truth regarding this case. Please do not dismiss it as a mere issue related to religion or family, but please look into the fundamental nature of the issue. Shincheonji Church of Jesus did not create COVID-19. We are citizens, who have followed the instructions of the authorities, and we are victims."

The church explained that once it became widely known through media reports as the epicenter of the coronavirus, its members naturally became afraid of the consequences that would follow.

“Some 4,000 cases of injustice against Shincheonji congregants have been reported already, which include notices of termination of employment, workplace bullying, domestic persecution, labeling, and slandering,” the organization said, noting that there have only been two coronavirus-linked deaths of Shincheonji congregants.

On Tuesday, France 24 reported that investigators in South Korea were seeking to hold 12 executives of the Shincheonji Church of criminally responsible for the rapid spread of COVID-19.

Globally, more than 90,000 people have been infected with the new coronavirus with more than 3,100 of them dying from the disease which currently has no cure and is described as deadlier than the flu.

“Globally, about 3.4 percent of reported Covid-19 cases have died,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s director general, said at a news conference in Geneva, Switzerland. “By comparison, seasonal flu generally kills far fewer than 1 percent of those infected.”

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