A masked shop assistant – and no customers in central Daegu. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

For a while, South Korea seemed at less risk from the Covid-19 outbreak than neighboring countries. But last week, the virus started to spread across Korea. Then the city of Daegu, 237 kilometers south of Seoul, became the Korean version of Wuhan

The government declared a red alert due to the surge of confirmed cases. While Koreans shudder at the thought of infection amid the epidemic, many are condemning Shincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony, a controversial religious group, for being a major source of the spread of the coronavirus.

The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said last week that a 61-year-old woman known only as “Patient 31” visited a buffet restaurant and a Shincheonji church in Daegu even though she had symptoms of the coronavirus. At the church, Patient 31 attended religious services with many other worshipers. More than 1,000 people reportedly visited the church while she was there.

Shincheonji officials’ response to the incident incensed Koreans. 

When the KCDC reported the incident, Shincheonji church officials issued an announcement to members: Never reveal that you are a worshipper of Shincheonji; pretend that you didn’t attend religious services at a church in Daegu; don’t follow the government’s orders related to Covid-19. And Lee Man-hee, the founder of Shincheonji, claimed that the devil was spreading the coronavirus to stop the growth of the church.

Shicheonji is a controversial evangelical church in Korea. Its Lee Man-hee claims that Jesus Christ appeared to him, and so he can offer eternal life to Shincheonji followers.

The government has called Shincheonji a religious cult. Its 200,000 adherents believe Shincheonji is heaven, seeing Lee as a promised pastor who never dies. The church claims that since Jesus promised eternal life, this is what Christians have to perceive. With the so-called doctrine of eternal life, its adherents believe that followers of Shincheonji will never suffer from a disease or die.

Based on the doctrine of eternal life and Lee’s announcement about the coronavirus, Shincheonji followers played down the government’s efforts to fight the virus. Some churchgoers hid the fact that they had attended religious services with Patient 31. Some of them didn’t answer phone calls from health authorities trying to trace infected persons. Such news reports went viral, and many people began denouncing Shincheonji and its followers.

Indeed, Shincheonji has become a Covid-19 hotbed. Many of the newly infected are Shincheonji churchgoers, including those who attended religious services with Patient 31. Thousands of Shincheonji followers are in self-quarantine.

The government announced plans to test 200,000 Shincheonji followers. And health authorities warned that more people are likely to be infected because of Shincheonji’s method of worshiping: All followers tightly kneel and pray for a long time, and no one can wear a mask while in prayer.

With the surge of infections and fierce criticism against the religious group, Shincheonji belatedly decided to follow the government’s orders. At a press conference, a church spokesman claimed that Shincheonji’s followers were the biggest victims, urging citizens to stop demonizing Shincheonji.

Yet many people are bitterly criticizing the controversial religious group, and small wonder: Kwon Young-jin, the mayor of Daegu, said confirmed cases were highly likely to surge in the city.

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