South Korean officials are looking into whether Lee Man-hee, controversial founder of the Shincheonji Church, broke the law by not complying with the government during the coronavirus outbreak. More than half of the country’s 4,000+ cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new virus, have been linked to members of the church, which has been labeled a cult.
In a televised news conference Monday, Lee offered “my word of deep apology,” saying his group’s involvement “was not intentional.” Wearing a mask (and a controversial gold watch) while bowing on the ground, Lee added, “We made our best efforts, but we could not completely prevent” the virus from spreading.
Accusations Against Lee Man-hee and His Church
Prosecutors and former Shincheonji members say Lee led efforts to falsify church-member lists and lie about the group’s missionary work in Wuhan, China, the outbreak’s epicenter. Park Won-soon, the mayor of Seoul, warns that if Lee isn’t detained soon, “the city will also request a criminal investigation for homicide by willful negligence.” Park claims the list of church members was doctored.
Secrecy and certain worship practices make Shincheonji a “perfect petri dish” for disease transmission, officials say. Members gather en masse for lengthy services, sit close together on floors, and frequently embrace and shout. They keep their identity under wraps and evangelize by infiltrating other churches and poaching their members.
A 61-year-old church member described as “patient zero” attended services in Daegu multiple times in February despite having a sore throat and fever.
Lee continues to deny responsibility for the outbreak and says his church is cooperating with the government. If convicted, the 88-year-old self-proclaimed messiah could face up to two years in prison.
Experts Compare Shincheonji to North Korea
Jeon In-sook, a nurse in Daegu, South Korea, describes widespread paranoia in the city of 2.5 million. “It feels like a game now, trying to figure out if people around me are Shincheonji members,” she says. “There’s no difference between Shincheonji and North Korea.”
Lee holds outdoor military-style propaganda rallies and fills stadiums for exhibitions and performances. The church also uses its own calendar, dating from its founding in 1984.
“To Shincheonji members, their priority is not the safety issue but rather protecting their own organization,” says theology professor Ji-il Tark. The cult has more than 200,000 members, plus an estimated 100,000 “trainees.” All people involved with Shincheonji will be tested for the virus, according to South Korean officials.
Shincheonji headquarters have been raided twice, and authorities are using phone data and credit cards to track suspected members. More than 1.1 million people have signed a petition for the cult to be disbanded.
Baek In-yeop, a church leader in Daegu, says worshipers wear masks and use hand sanitizer. “It’s a witch hunt against us,” Baek told reporters while coughing. “They frame us as if we are a devil organization. We are Daegu citizens before being Shincheonji members.”