Leader of Secretive Church at Center of South Korea’s Virus Outbreak Is Arrested – The Wall Street Journal

Leader of Secretive Church at Center of South Korea’s Virus Outbreak Is Arrested – The Wall Street Journal

Lee Man-hee, the 88-year-old leader of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, was questioned for more than eight hours on Friday by a local judge in Suwon, a city just south of Seoul. He is accused of providing false documents to health authorities at the peak of South Korea’s outbreak in February. At the time, the government requested a full list of facilities where church members gathered to track down potential close contacts.

After the first Shincheonji member tested positive for the coronavirus in the city of Daegu on Feb. 18, more than 5,000 cases were linked back to the church. South Korea has reported 14,336 cases of infection, according to the Centers for Disaster Control and Prevention.

Mr. Lee and other church officials have denied the allegations against them and say they have cooperated with authorities. At a news conference in March, Mr. Lee knelt, bowed in front of reporters and apologized for the church’s role in the outbreak. While he did not address the legal challenges against himself or the church, Mr. Lee said Shincheonji would provide a full list of its members and cooperate with the government investigations.

South Korean prosecutors allege Shincheonji, under Mr. Lee’s direction, kept the complete membership list secret.

The leader of an enigmatic church, accused by South Korean officials of spreading the coronavirus epidemic, apologized to the public. WSJ’s Dasl Yoon explains how the church’s secretive practices may have jeopardized containment efforts. Photo: Lee Moo Ryul/Newsis via AP

In a Saturday statement, Shincheonji said Mr. Lee was concerned about the government’s “excessive” requests for church members’ personal information, but he hadn’t intended to interfere in the government’s antivirus efforts.

“The court’s issuance of the arrest warrant does not mean a guilty verdict and we will do our best to reveal the truth in the upcoming court trials,” the statement said.

Last week, a church official wrote to The Wall Street Journal saying leaders of the church were being detained and investigated despite their efforts to cooperate with authorities since the coronavirus outbreak began.

“With the church losing its license, it’s an alarming development for religious freedom advocates,” the official said.

Mr. Lee, who is believed by church members to be immortal, founded Shincheonji in 1984. The group now claims it has more than 245,000 members world-wide, though about 21,000 are in South Korea where it has 1,100 venues. The national government in Seoul has called Shincheonji a Korean cult.

The outbreak at a Shincheonji church in Daegu, South Korea’s fourth-largest city with 2.4 million people, proved to be a major complication for health investigators.

Health authorities soon learned thousands of worshipers had knelt on the ground close to each other during services. Shincheonji members are told they must recruit followers to gain eternal life, meaning they had crossed paths with many other people at busy intersections or even in other towns. Many Shincheonji followers were hesitant to come forward, as some concealed their ties to the church to co-workers—and even their own families.

In late February, the South Korea government ordered Shincheonji to close all of its facilities nationwide and halt gatherings.

In the months since, legal challenges against Shincheonji and Mr. Lee have accumulated. A civic group accused Mr. Lee of embezzling church funds. Seven senior church officials were indicted in the Suwon district court in late July for violating South Korea’s infectious disease control law.

In March, the Seoul city government filed a legal complaint against Mr. Lee and requested an investigation for “homicide by willful negligence.” Later that month, South Korean prosecutors searched the Shincheonji headquarters looking for a full list of members and facilities. In June, the city of Daegu filed a civil-damage suit against the church and its founder for hindering the city’s efforts in combating the virus and causing a massive increase in infections. Daegu accused the church of providing an inaccurate list of church members to the city, which delayed the contact tracing process.

The church has attempted to show it complied with the government’s antivirus efforts. In June, the church said 4,000 members who recovered from Covid-19 would donate plasma to support the country’s vaccine development. The donations were encouraged by Mr. Lee, the church said in June. At the time, fewer than 200 South Koreans had volunteered to donate blood after recovering from the coronavirus.

The National Shincheonji Victims Coalition, a group of former church members and related families, said in a statement after Mr. Lee’s arrest that the church had shown its true colors during the coronavirus outbreak.

“Despite the government and the citizens’ efforts to overcome the crisis, they hindered virus prevention activities with lies and delayed responses,” the statement said.

The Shincheonji victims group has previously said the organization pressured members to cut ties with their families and extorted money from churchgoers.

Write to Dasl Yoon at dasl.yoon@wsj.com

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