SEOUL • South Korea's battle to contain a new outbreak of the coronavirus has been complicated by a political and religious fight between President Moon Jae-in's administration and some of his fiercest critics.
Sarang Jeil Church is the second religious group at the centre of a major Covid-19 outbreak in South Korea.
The government accuses the church of obstruction by not providing complete lists of its members and spreading fake news that is hindering anti-virus efforts, while church members say they are victims of a politically motivated witch hunt.
When the first infections were reported among church members on Aug 12, the government said the group flouted social distancing instructions, with the church's leader and others attending a massive anti-Moon rally in Seoul on Aug 15.
Speaking at the rally, Reverend Jun Kwang-hoon said Mr Moon had "terrorised our church with the Wuhan virus". The coronavirus outbreak was first detected in central China's Wuhan city late last year.
Reverend Jun, an outspoken government critic, later tested positive for the virus.
Covid-19 cases tied to the church in northern Seoul totalled 796 as of noon yesterday.
It is the largest cluster since more than 5,000 Covid-19 cases were traced to another controversial religious group, the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, in late February and early March.
That was South Korea's first major outbreak, accounting for almost a third of the country's total 16,670 cases.
On Friday night, police executed a search warrant at the Sarang Jeil Church's office to gather membership lists, church official Lee Dong-ho said.
The church said it had already provided full lists, but the health authorities accused the church of under-reporting its membership.
The Health Ministry said last Sunday it had filed a complaint against Reverend Jun for violating self-isolation rules by participating in the rally, and for obstructing a medical investigation into the outbreak.
Mr Peter Ko, an attorney for Reverend Jun, said the church had followed social distancing guidelines and the church leader was at the rally for only about 15 minutes.
Some Sarang Jeil members say the government is fabricating the test results as part of a plot to persecute them.
Mr Ko said that for those who identify themselves as church members to clinic staff, their results are more likely to come back positive.
"When we go get tested elsewhere and do not mention that we are a member of the congregation, we'd test negative," he said.
"I would say there is a fabrication," he added.
One of the church's pastors, Ms Lee Hae-suk, said she was initially told her test was negative, but the next day she received a message saying she had tested positive.
"I can think of no other reason than that this is a plot to kill Sarang Jeil Church by increasing the number of confirmed cases," she said.
When asked who she thinks is behind the plot, she said: "Moon Jae-in."
Another theory advanced by some members is that the outbreak is a "terror attack", possibly spread by tainted bottles of hand sanitiser.
Ms Yang Dong-sook, another pastor, said the Sarang Jeil Church at one point received bottles of what looked like hand sanitiser that smelled more like chemicals.
"We ignored it then, but now that I see so many infections, I think it could be true," she said.
Mr Moon on Friday called for legal penalties for anyone obstructing anti-virus measures, including those conducting "all-out misinformation campaigns".
Professor Kwon Yon-gyong, dean of the Graduate School of Christian Studies at Seoul's Soongsil University, said Sarang Jeil Church was closer to a political organisation than a religious community.
"Reverend Jun Kwang-hoon is a political figure - a far-right political icon. He is a pastor, but has earned exposure through the far-right political movement."
The leader of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, Lee Man-hee, was arrested on Aug 1 after being accused of hindering the virus response by hiding information about the church's members and gatherings, allegations which he denies.