The controversial South Korean religious sect at the centre of a new coronavirus outbreak is facing the biggest crisis in its 36-year history, as hundreds of its members have tested positive, drawing unprecedented scrutiny from authorities and the public.
South Korea reported 334 new cases of the coronavirus on Thursday (February 27) bringing the national tally to 1,595. More than 1,000 of them are from the city of Daegu, according to the Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC), nearly 600 directly linked to a branch of the Shincheonji church there.
The number of cases spiked since a 61-year-old woman known as “Patient 31” who attended services there tested positive on February 18. KCDC said it is still investigating the exact origin of the outbreak but five to six other members of the church contracted the virus together with the woman.
An So-young had a gut feeling that the 31st person in South Korea to test positive for the coronavirus might be a member of the controversial religious sect she quit four years ago.
“That’s their culture, they have to hide their movements, and that’s why I guessed she was with Shincheonji,” An, 27, said in an interview, referring to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus.
“You would be like 5 centimetres away from the person who sits next to you, and would have to say ‘amen’ after every sentence that the pastor speaks – it’s the best environment for the virus to spread,” An said, who left Shincheonji in 2016 after spending five years as a follower.
According to An, new members are forced to leave home and live in dormitories as part of initiation, and many break ties with family. An herself almost severed contact with her own family during her time with Shincheonji.
Shincheonji’s secretive practices and sometime aggressive recruitment efforts have made the church a controversial presence in South Korea’s religious community.
“It may appear Christian but is actually completely different…They revere founder Lee Man-hee as a saviour, like Jesus,” said Lee Duck-sure, a counsellor who helps former members of the church. “Everything is secret,” he added.
After initial resistance, the church has released the addresses of 1,100 facilities around the country – 82 churches and 1,018 “affiliates” – and asked the public to stop from making “groundless criticism,” claiming it was the “biggest victim of the virus.”
Police raided the church’s main offices in Gwacheon on Tuesday (February 25) after provincial authorities said they could no longer wait, nor rely on information provided by the church.
Calls by Reuters to the church’s headquarters repeatedly went answered.
The outbreak and the church’s opaque nature have fuelled public anger in South Korea. A petition with the presidential Blue House calling for Shincheonji to be disbanded has gathered more than 780,000 signatures since it was initiated two days ago.
On Friday (February 21) afternoon, the Daegu church was shuttered and silent, surrounded by empty streets and closed stores. Someone had thrown eggs at the front gate of the building, a sign of the anger that has simmered since the outbreak.
Doo Song-Ja, 64, said she had not heard from her daughter since 2015 after she joined the church.
“I’m so worried because so many Shincheonji followers are testing positive (for the virus) but I don’t know where she is,” said Doo, who said her 33-year-old daughter has sued her for “forcible confinement” for trying to keep her home. (Reuters)
(Production: Daewoung Kim, Dogyun Kim, Minwoo Park, Hyunyoung Yi)
MANILA, Philippines – The Department of Health (DOH) has called on Filipinos to defer plans of traveling to parts of South Korea amid spike in the cases of novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in said country.
In a media interview, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III discouraged the public from traveling to South Korea, particularly in Daegu and Cheongdo county in north Gyeongsang province, following a reported increase in the cases of confirmed coronavirus infection.
Duque said the Philippine government has yet to decide on whether to impose a travel ban to and from South Korea, but Filipinos planning to fly to these areas are advised to monitor developments and to delay any non-essential travel to the country as a precaution.
The health chief made the call after the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on Sunday, February 23, advised Filipinos to comply with the advisories from South Korean health authorities and cooperate with efforts to quell the further spread of the COVID-19.
Duque said the Inter-Agency Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases is set to meet to discuss the matter.
As of Wednesday, February 26, South Korea has reported more than 1,100 confirmed cases with 12 deaths.
The DFA said the Philippine Embassy in South Korea has not received information that there are Filipinos infected with the disease.
The country has raised its four-tier alert to the highest red level as cases of virus infection soar.
Under the red alert, the health authorities recommended people with fever or respiratory symptoms to refrain from attending schools and going to work. Pregnant women, the elderly and the chronically ill are also advised to avoid crowded places.
The South Korean government earlier said they will adjust their epidemic prevention and control system, including stepping up the investigation of patients with mild symptoms and setting up a diagnosis and treatment system for confirmed patients.
In his first visit to Daegu since the outbreak began, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said on Tuesday (February 25) that the government will “win the fight” against the coronavirus as the number of cases in the country rose to 893.
About 68 percent of South Korea’s cases have been linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus. Of 60 new cases reported on Tuesday, 16 were in the southeastern city of Daegu, where the church is located.
Last week the government decided to designate Daegu and neighboring Cheongdo County as “special care zones”.
Moon on Tuesday sought to reassure residents that the government was not considering locking down the area. (South Korea’s Presidential Office via Reuters Connect)
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