The head of a religious sect that had thousands of COVID-19 cases in South Korea has been arrested for allegedly hiding information about the pandemic at his church.
Lee Man-hee, the 88-year-old head of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, was arrested on Saturday by South Korean authorities following an investigation.
Authorities believe that Lee withheld vital information about his church members’ presence at public gatherings after being infected with the coronavirus.
He is also accused of holding unapproved religious gatherings and embezzling the equivalent of $4.7 million, according to the British Broadcasting Corporation.
Both Lee and his church have argued that he is innocent of wrongdoing, with the hiding of information being more about respecting the privacy rights of the sect’s membership.
“The court's issuance of an arrest warrant doesn't mean a guilty verdict,” stated the church, as reported by the BBC. “All possible efforts will be made to unveil the truth in the upcoming court trials.”
Approximately 5,000 members of the church, considered by many to be a cult, tested positive for COVID-19, making up around a third of all cases in South Korea.
The church is blamed for having propagated the coronavirus in South Korea, with officials back in March considering Lee and other church leaders responsible for the spread of COVID-19.
At a press conference in March, Lee expressed his “deepest condolences” to his countrymen over the spread of the virus and insisted that his sect was indeed cooperating with authorities.
“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,” stated Lee at the time.
In June, the church reported that around 4,000 of its members had recovered from COVID-19 and that they will donate blood plasma to help combat the disease.
With an estimated market value of up to $83 billion, the donation would go to convalescent plasma therapy, an experimental treatment some are using to treat severe coronavirus infections.
“At a time when plasma donations to the Korean Green Cross have been low, Shincheonji Church’s contribution is invaluable,” stated the church at the time.
“With prices of plasma from biotech companies around the world ranging from $350 to $40,000 dollars per milliliter, this sets Shincheonji’s donation at a value of about $83 billion dollars.”