This article was updated on February 23, 2020, at 11:55 p.m. local time in South Korea.
SEOUL—A South Korean church whose founder says, rather mysteriously, that he represents the second coming of Christ on Earth and has unique insights into God’s revelations is getting much of the blame for a major surge in the spread of the deadly coronavirus here.
Fear of the disease now known as COVID-19 actually had been on the decline in South Korea until a fresh outbreak was traced to a 61-year-old woman who belonged to the Shincheonji Church in Daegu, a city of 2.4 million about 170 miles southeast of Seoul. Soon it was clear that more than half the known cases were connected to Shincheonji parishioners.
As the number of infections started climbing with disconcerting speed on Sunday, the government here put the country on the highest possible alert, opening the way for it to lock down whole cities if deemed necessary.
All told, as of this writing late Sunday night local time, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 602 cases, including six people who have died. Of the total number diagnosed, 329 were members of Shincheonji or had had contact with members.
A former member of the church told South Korea's Yonhap news agency that Shincheonji’s practices during worship may heighten the risk of coronavirus contagion, since participants kneel close together and sing songs with their arms on each others’ shoulders during services. There are also concerns about its presence outside South Korea, possibly including Hubei province in China, the epicenter of the growing epidemic.
Lee Man-hee, the 88-year-old founder and leader of the church, has called the disease the “devil's deed” and a test of faith meant to stop the growth of Shincheonji, according to Yonhap.
Leaders of more traditional churches have been quick to denounce Shincheonji, which means “New Heaven and Earth.” And the spread of COVID-19 from one of the 74 Shincheonji “sanctuaries” strengthens the view among the mainstream that Shincheonji is a dangerous cult that keeps many of its 200,000 members in secret compounds while pressuring them to absorb its teachings and recruit other followers.
Christian critics for years have denounced Lee Man-hee as “a heretic” who has exploited thousands of adherents since opening his first congregation 36 years ago. He calls himself “the promised pastor.”
“They are not real Christians,” says a member of Korea’s Presbyterian church, the country’s largest Christian organization. “They are fake.”
Park Won-soon, the mayor of Seoul, has picked up on the hostile sentiment, warning against the evil the church poses in the metropolitan region of the Korean capital. “Shincheonji sect, also known as ‘Church of Jesus, the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony’ in Daegu, has become a hotbed of the infections in local communities,” he warned in a lengthy media briefing as the extent of the outbreak became known, calling for measures to stop the disease from spreading.
Already, he said, confirmed cases elsewhere were “related to the church in Daegu” and “another confirmed patient in Seoul attended the chapel in that church.” It was “to proactively prevent the further spread of the virus,” he said, that “the Shincheonji churches in Seoul will be closed.”
That crackdown was not the only severe measure ordered by Park. He also banned street demonstrations, notably by conservatives hostile to his own municipal government and the national government.
Park, a left-leaning politician who has long advocated dialogue with North Korea, insisted he had in mind the health of old people who join in such protests waving American and Korean flags.
“The symptoms and prognosis of the confirmed cases could be fatal to people with underlying conditions, and the elderly in particular,” he said, ordering the closure of welfare facilities, senior citizen centers and an historic park in central Seoul where old men frequently gather.
Conservatives, hoping to defeat ruling party legislators in national assembly elections in April, denounced the ban as “politics” and promised to turn out in defiance of rows of policemen massed on the main avenue running by city hall.
The role of Shincheonji in spreading the disease, however, seems far more important than political protests in a country where religious groupings often fight one another.
About a third of South Korea’s 51 million people identify as Christians, but there are deep divisions among them, and these movements like Shincheonji draw adherents despite social and cultural barriers to proselytizing and preaching. Cults and cult-like groupings have proliferated, seeming to fill some sort of spiritual void in this fast-moving fast-growing country always under threat from its neighbor to the north.
If the COVID-19 epidemic is striking down members of Shincheonji its critics “will say God has struck heretics,” says Michael Breen, author of books on Korean culture and a former member of the Unification Church of the late Rev. Moon Sun-myung. “A lot of people will be thinking, they kind of deserve this.”
In fact, in the years since Lee Man-hee first mesmerized young Koreans with his claim to embody Jesus Christ, the Shincheonji Church has proven about as controversial as the “Moonie” Unification Church.
Lee may not call himself “the messiah” or “true parent” of mankind as did Moon, but he preaches an extremist view of Christianity whose message is essentially that he came to know the meaning of Christ on Earth through the Bible’s Book of Revelation.
“More people are upset with Lee than with Moon,” says Breen. “They will go after him. They are very dogmatic and judgmental.”
The secrecy of the church adds to the build-up of emotions against its activities.
“Health authorities are having difficulties as they could not reach or contact more than 400 followers of the church,” reported Dong A Ilbo, a leading newspaper in Seoul. It was only through GPS tracking, the paper said, that the church member who was first diagnosed was discovered to have visited Cheongdo, where an outbreak was reported in a hospital and the first person in Korea died of the disease.
“Since the entire nation is experiencing a national crisis, Shincheonji religious followers should voluntarily report symptoms and self-quarantine at home while fully cooperating with the authorities in quarantine efforts,” the paper editorialized.
At the same time, Dong A called on citizens not to attack patients “even for the sake of ensuring the success of quarantine efforts.”
Kukmin Ilbo, a Christian newspaper with strong ties to South Korea’s largest congregation, the evangelical Full Gospel Church in Seoul, suggested Shincheonji members are reluctant to cooperate with authorities tracing the course of the disease.
“It seems to be the tendency to act in a closed manner without showing much of its beliefs,” said the paper, describing Shincheonji as “a pseudo-religion or cult.”
It claimed that “there were even allegations that Shincheonji sent an internal notice to the congregation telling them to say, ‘I didn’t go to church that day’ and ‘I worshipped somewhere other than there.’”
Shincheonji says such claims are concocted by its mortal enemies. “There is no such thing as an internal notice,” a church official responded.
More to the point, Mayor Park said, “Anyone who attended the chapels of the Shincheonji Church in Daegu must report to an emergency telephone number.” Seoul will quickly get the list of names, he said. “This is an inevitable measure to ensure and protect the health, safety and life of citizens.” Seoul, he promised, “will exert all its administrative effort.”
Shin Hyun-wook, a pastor who specializes in deprogramming Shincheonji members, says they are told not to let their families know they belong to the church. “They believe in eternal life,” he says, dying only from “lack of faith.”
The warning “EMERGENCY ALERT” in capital letters, preceded by loud beeping sounds, flashed simultaneously on the screens of the mobile phones of millions of South Koreans late Sunday as the government elevated the fast-spreading coronavirus, now known as COVID-19, to the highest level.
President Moon Jae-in, who several days earlier had tried to calm fears and warn against panic, came on South Korean TV networks announcing “the COVID-19 incident has been confronted by a grave watershed.”
“A few days from now is a very important moment,” he said.
Moon did not say what he believed had to happen in that short time span to stem the crisis other than to call for “unprecedented, powerful measures,” but never before had the government gone to such extremes as to warn Korea’s 51 million citizens of the danger to health and safety.
Armed with the authority to stop public gatherings, including political protests, the government postponed the opening of schools from next Monday, March 2, until the following Monday.
Seeking to get on top of a situation about which he had been criticized for acting too slowly, Moon said his government now would “perceive the crisis” in the southeastern city of Daegu and the surrounding province as “a national one.” Henceforth, he said, the government would focus on “riding out the difficulty without sparing any support.”
Earlier, the health and welfare minister, Park Neung-hoo, assured the country the virus was “limited within a specific region and group”—a reference to the members of Shincheonji.
Four of the six victims of the virus died in the same hospital in Cheongdo, near Daegu.
“The nation's health authorities are concerned that more virus cases will be identified at the hospital as most patients have underlying illnesses,” according to the Yonhap news service. “Transmissions taking place in hospitals and clinics are also of grave concern because of the risk of exposing sick people, who are more vulnerable to infections, to the virus.”
A sign of concern about the spread of the virus was that Shinsegae, an historic department store featuring luscious displays and popular food courts, shut down the restaurants in a major branch in one of Seoul's most upscale high-rise office and apartment districts. A customer, the store announced, was reported to have come down with the virus after attending a Shincheonji gathering in Daegu.
Moon pointedly urged the cooperation of Shincheonji members, noted for standing close together in mass meetings closed to outside observers and refusing to answer questions about what they are doing. “Trust and cooperation are the way to win the fight against the virus,” he said.
He coupled that remark with a demand that Koreans in general refrain from mass meetings—a remark that his political foes interpreted as an effort to suppress large-scale mass protests against his policy of reconciliation with North Korea. The protests were expected to climax next Sunday, the anniversary of a short-lived revolt on March 1, 1919, against Japanese rule.
The urgency of the need to halt the COVID-19 before it got out of the Daegu region and spread all over the country provided another week of vacation for Korean students of all ages and education levels.
Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae postponed the opening of schools from March 2 to March 9 “to prevent the spread of infection and for the safety of students and school faculty.”
The frankness with which South Korea announced the numbers of those who had suffered from the disease, including deaths, contrasted with the secrecy imposed by North Korea, which continues to tighten controls but denied any victims.
Most recently, North Korea announced a quarantine on all imports, most of which come from China, many in violation of United Nations sanctions. The North’s leading newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, said the quarantine for 10 days was needed since "materials being brought from another country could be used as a carrier to spread the virus."