More than half of the new cases of the deadly coronavirus that have developed in South Korea can all be traced back to the leader of a bizarre cult who believes he is immortal.
Officials confirmed at least 231 of the country’s 433 cases are linked to outbreaks at a secretive branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu.
Shincheonji translates as “new heaven and land” and the cult is drawing global attention after being linked to a spike in coronavirus infections across the nation.
Cult leader Lee Man-Hee, now aged 88, labeled the deadly outbreak as “the devil’s deed” and “a test of faith” in a message sent on an internal app to his followers.
In one message, he wrote, “This disease case is seen as the devil’s deed to stop the rapid growth of Shincheonji”, according to Yonhap, a South Korean news agency.
“Just like the tests Job went through, it is to destroy our advancement”.
Lee Man-Hee claims to be an immortal prophet sent by Jesus Christ to prepare for the end of the world. The sect claims to have about 300,000 followers at some 600 locations in 29 countries, stretching as far as South Africa, the Congo and Costa Rica.
Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) knows of 9,300 people who had attended church services with around 1,200 of whom have complained of flu like symptoms.
More than half of the South Korea cases are linked to a 61-year-old woman known as ‘Patient 31’ who attended religious services at the branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu, the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony.
The woman is not believed to have traveled abroad.
There are also reports of outbreaks at a psychiatric unit of a hospital in Cheongdo county. KCDC officials have suggested the outbreaks in the hospital and the church could be linked, after members of the religious cult attended a funeral at the hospital for the brother of its founder this month.
President Moon Jae-in has ordered officials to investigate links. Health officials are zeroing in on the church’s practices in an attempt to contain South Korea’s alarming coronavirus outbreak. The number of reported cases in the country doubled this week.
Officials in Seoul said they were closing Shincheonji churches and asking group members who were at services to isolate themselves, but the authorities have said hundreds cannot be reached.