A quasi-Christian doomsday sect with hundreds of thousands of followers has been transformed from a theological curiosity to a global pariah.
South Korean officials blame the Shincheonji Church of Jesus for the world’s worst outbreak of the coronavirus outside of China. A plan to charge the sect’s leaders with homicide was announced in Seoul on Sunday.
“If they had taken active measures, we could have prevented many people from dying,” said Park Won-soon, Seoul’s mayor.
On Monday, Lee Man-hee, the 88-year-old founder and leader of the secretive church, bowed before national television in a gesture of remorse. However, he remained defiant even though the virus has killed two Shincheonji followers and thousands have more have fallen ill in the country. The church claims it has become a scapegoat for Seoul’s botched early handling of the crisis.
“People need someone to blame . . . our activities have been distorted by media so much and politicians are taking advantage of it,” said a member who asked to remain anonymous.
What is Shincheonji?
Last week at a church in Guri, a city east of Seoul, 30 former members of Shincheonji listened carefully to a re-education sermon that struck at the heart of the sect’s beliefs.
“It’s like detoxifying an addict. We replace their distorted views with conventional Christian teachings,” said Pastor Shin Hyun-wook, who has helped thousands escape the sect’s grasp over more than a decade.
Shincheonji was founded in 1984 by Mr Lee, who had previously been a member of other fringe churches. While it is not the only doomsday church in South Korea — about a third of the population of 51m identifies as Christian — Shincheonji is one of the biggest and most radical.
Its global expansion has been fuelled by cash from followers and relentless recruitment, experts said, often targeting vulnerable people questioning their faith. Experts added that friendly Bible study or choir practice sessions swiftly progressed to indoctrination.
Followers believe in a core tenet and preach it with gusto: that the spirit of Jesus Christ descended into Mr Lee and people should strive to be one of the select souls who can join him in heaven when the world ends.
Members infiltrate other churches, keeping their Shincheonji ties in the shadows, said Peter Lineham, an Auckland-based expert in religions.
“Nothing can be taken at face value with Shincheonji,” Mr Lineham said.
Members’ time is split between ensnaring new recruits and mass prayer and worship sessions inside packed halls and auditoriums. Foreign converts are whisked to South Korea to attend one of the scores of local centres.
“I felt like I had to save people out there from hell because I was already in heaven,” said Kang Ye-rim, 26, a member for three years before leaving the group two months ago.
Is the sect responsible for Korea’s coronavirus outbreak?
In mid-February, South Korean president Moon Jae-in, told the public that the worst would soon be over, when fewer than 30 cases had been reported. Case numbers have since risen to more than 4,200 and 26 have died.
Officials identified a 61-year-old Shincheonji member as a “super-spreader”, responsible for the big outbreak in the city of Daegu, the source of three-quarters of South Korea’s cases. Investigators are still probing exactly when the infamous “patient 31” contracted the disease. Officials said she came into contact with hundreds of fellow devotees.
Testing has revealed startlingly high infection rates among church members, who make up 60 per cent of South Korea’s cases.
Public anger has risen after revelations that senior officials, tasked with fighting the virus in Daegu, were Shincheonji followers who had tested positive for the coronavirus.
Has the group been unfairly targeted?
A petition to outlaw Shincheonji, citing its “immoral religious dogma and unco-operative attitude”, has drawn more than 1m signatures.
Part of the distrust had arisen from media reports that members refused to be tested and had gone into hiding, creating a public health hazard. Officials plan to test all Shincheonji’s Korean members as part of emergency efforts to stem the outbreak.
“We have told our followers to co-operate with health authorities,” a Shincheonji spokesperson said.
Shincheonji members conceded that they kept their faith secret from family and friends but said they did so out of fear of persecution.
“People look at me as if I am a monster,” a member said, adding: “I came to my church to search for deeper truth. Korean society criticises my religion but my belief has not been shaken by this at all.”
While Mr Lee, the self-professed second coming of Christ, remains public enemy number one, critics said the government was also at fault.
Baek Seung-joo, a senior opposition lawmaker, said the “biggest failing” was a decision to continue to allow travellers from China to enter Korea.
“The government should change its position and immediately ban arrivals from China for the health of South Koreans, Chinese and all humanity.”