Shincheonji Church Leader Faces Possible Murder Probe Over Coronavirus Deaths In South Korea

Lee Man-hee, leader of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, bows during a press conference at a facility of the church in Gapyeong on March 2, 2020. (Photo: POOL/AFP, Getty)

The controversial leader of the Shincheonji church in South Korea is reportedly facing possible murder charges for the sect’s role in the spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus in South Korea, where more than 4,000 confirmed cases have been reported.

Officials allege that the religious sect Shincheonji Church of Jesus is at the centre of the virus’ spread in South Korea, in part due to the secretive nature of the church and its members’ attempts to conceal their affiliation from others outside the sect. According to the New York Times, leader Lee Man-hee last week told the sect’s followers that the epidemic was a result of “the evil who got jealous of Shincheonji’s rapid growth,” and members have refused to cooperate with authorities administering tests.

Multiple outlets reported the church—which critics often describe as a cult—as being so secretive that a Daegu government health official who supervised the COVID-19 response failed to reveal that he was himself a member of Shincheonji until he tested positive for the disease.

Following more than two dozen deaths related to the coronavirus strain in South Korea and a rapid spread that’s seen thousands of confirmed cases, Reuters reported that Seoul officials are seeking a probe of Lee and 12 other individuals on criminal charges of murder as well as disease control act violations. According to the outlet, Mayor of Seoul Park Won-soon alleges that deaths related to the virus could have been avoided had the church’s top brass adhered to preventative protocols.

Despite South Korea’s advanced preparation to contain the spread of coronavirus, Shincheonji’s refusal to take preventative measures coupled with its bizarre belief that illness is a sin manifests in people attending its rituals in tight quarters—where members are required to sit closely together and are likely to infect each other—even when they showed symptoms of being sick. Citing former members, the Wall Street Journal reported that the cult communicates to its members that they will live forever, and Shincheonji followers are said to believe that Lee is the second coming of Jesus Christ and the sole interpreter for secret codes evidently contained in the Book of Revelation.

Lee, 88, apologised for the outbreak in a press event during which he bowed twice and spoke for roughly 25 minutes. The Journal quoted Lee as saying that the sect “has pledged to actively cooperate with the government and submit the entire list of our members,” despite it previously refusing to do so. The Journal reported that more than 1 million South Koreans have signed a formal petition calling for the sect to be disbanded.

In a statement, Park said that prosecutors connected to the probe “should investigate and punish key leaders of the Shincheonji [church], accountable for the recent spread of the deadly virus, in a swift and stern manner.”

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