The Shincheonji Church of Jesus is now undergoing intense scrutiny not only in South Korea but also in other parts of the world, especially since the majority of the country’s cases are connected to a group the government has described as a cult.
The group is known for its extremely secretive ways, to the point that it was only on Wednesday, February 26, that its list of over 200,000 members was handed over to the government, following a series of discussions. The group has been said to be uncooperative with giving out its members’ lists, forcing officials to enter its headquarters at Shincheonji to obtain the list of local members.
A woman who turned out to be the first confirmed case in Yongin, to the north of Seoul, lied to the government and her own family about having visited the church at Daegu, with video cameras proving her attendance.
A 61-year-old woman who attends the church at Daegu, South Korea’s ground zero for the Covid-19 outbreak, attended a service in that city last week and has since been identified as a “super-spreader,” an individual who ends up infecting a disproportionately large number of others. She is connected to 455 confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).
As of February 27 (Thursday), 1,848 church members from Daegu have been tested for the disease, with 833 positive and 183 negative results.
The woman, who has not been to China recently, was said to initially refuse testing for the virus, even after she ran a high fever when she was hospitalized after a car accident on February 6. From that time, she travelled to Seoul, Cheongdo, and Pohang. By the morning of February 16, she was in Daegu and attended a service at the church with 460 others.
The group is currently experiencing a negative backlash from South Koreans, with over half a million people signing a petition to the government to officially disband the group. Any petition sent by citizens to the presidential office with 200,000 signatures is guaranteed to get an official reply.
The group was founded in 1984 by Lee Man-hee, whom members of the church believe to be the second coming of Christ and would bring restoration to the world. The group’s evangelistic practices of posing as students taking surveys have long been derided by the public, who are now becoming more critical as the virus continues to spread.
The South China Morning Post (SCMP) quotes one netizen as saying, “As the daycare centre has taken a break for an indefinite amount of time, I don’t know if both of us can continue to work as one of us needs to tend to the children at home … We are barely making it as it is … I feel resentment towards the woman from the Daegu church.”
To make matters worse, a post online shared a plan from the cult to infiltrate other churches. One pastor from a traditional church said a whistleblower from the cult told him members were told to spread the virus.
Former members say they believe it’s true. Under the cover of anonymity, a former member told SCMP, “When I first heard about this so-called rumor, I believed that it was 100 percent true. By spreading the virus to regular churches, Shincheonji is trying to quell the exposure that it is currently receiving. They’re afraid their lies will all come out in public.”
Exercising caution, Christian churches in South Korea have gone online or increased security measures and churches are reporting incidents of non-members attending, but running away when questioned.
The head of the Korea Christian Cult Counselling Centre in the Yeongnam district, Hwang Euy-jong, said that churches should take the post seriously.
“Such commands would not be anything out of the ordinary for a group that has carried out covert activities for all of its existence. I know cases where 200 Shincheonji members were sent out undercover to a traditional church with 10,000 members, and the church later crumbled.”
However, according to another former member, inside the cult members are being told that the news about Covid-19 is propaganda. She told SCMP, “My friend texted me that news about the coronavirus was propaganda that was attempting to slow down the development of Shincheonji.” —/TISG