In Depth

Coronavirus: what is the Shincheonji Church of Jesus?

Mysterious Christian sect is blamed for spread of coronavirus in South Korea

A religious sect in South Korea has been identified as a major coronavirus hotbed after the number of cases in the country rose sharply this week.

According to authorities in South Korea, a large number of infections have been found among members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, all of which have been traced back to one particular woman.

With more than 80% of the country’s nearly 2,000 cases linked to the sect, The Guardian reports that “fear and hatred towards the church is on the rise”.

But what is the sect and why have its followers been so badly impacted by the disease?

What is Shincheonji?

Shincheonji Church of Jesus, the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony, was established in 1984 by South Korean Lee Man-hee, now in his 80s.

As CNN notes, little is known about his past, but the church describes him as the “Promised Pastor”, as mentioned in the Bible, who will lead his chosen “shepherds” into the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.

The group, which has more than 1,000 churches in South Korea and boasts more than 240,000 members worldwide, is in effect an offshoot of Christianity. It represents around 14-15% of South Korea’s Christian population.

According to the BBC, followers are taught to believe that Lee is the second coming of Jesus Christ, but little else is known about their belief structure.

Channel News Asia reports that the sect is “said to be a cult by critics”, adding that it describes itself on its website as “the one and only kingdom and temple of God on this earth”, pledging to yield to the will of Jesus “by sacrificing our bodies like a candle”.

Shincheonji “seeks recruits surreptitiously by dispatching its members to mainstream Protestant congregations to try to persuade their believers - a tactic that has prompted many churches to issue warnings to keep them at bay”, the broadcaster adds.

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Why are they being blamed?

The sect’s careless approach to hygiene and lack of preventative measures to stop the spread of coronavirus have seen them attract widespread criticism from the South Korean public.

According to the Guardian, the outbreak among its followers began with so-called “Patient 31”, a 61-year-old female member who developed a fever on 10 February, but attended at least four further church services in Daegu.

According to Channel News Asia, at the church’s services members “sit close together on the floor without chairs and desks, praying extensively in what critics say creates an ideal environment to spread viral infections”.

Former church member Duhyen Kim told CNN that congregants were told not to wear masks while praying as it was “disrespectful to God to have masks on”. The church also took a roll call and frowned upon members calling in sick, Kim said.

There has been a public uproar as health authorities said they were struggling to contact Shincheonji members in Daegu, but hundreds have not responded owing to their secrecy.

What happens next?

According to the Guardian, since the outbreak in Daegu, South Korea has “spiralled into a state of national emergency” in which authorities have advised citizens to wear a mask at all times and many companies have told employees to work from home and avoid face-to-face meetings.

“More regions of Korea have stopped accepting flights from Daegu, and as the city suffers a shortage of medical staff, some 500 medical doctors around the country have volunteered to work in the virus-ridden city,” the paper says.

“Despite this, Daegu is struggling to keep up with the infection cases, with more than half of those confirmed to be infected with the virus told to stay at home due to a lack of hospital beds.”

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