SEOUL - Major churches in South Korea cancelled services on Sunday (March 1) and went online instead in line with government efforts to reduce mass gatherings in a bid to contain the spread of the coronavirus that has infected about 3,800 people, including a six-week old baby.
President Moon Jae-in urged national unity and said the government is going all out to curb mass infections that are largely linked to an outbreak at the Daegu branch of secretive Shincheonji Church of Jesus.
He also proposed cooperation in healthcare with North Korea, which is reportedly monitoring nearly 7,000 people who showed symptoms. The regime has no confirmed case yet.
"The lives of the Korean people will be safer when the two Koreas can respond together when infectious diseases spread among humans and animals," Mr Moon said in a televised speech.
South Korea reported 586 new cases on Sunday - down from Saturday's record high of 813. This included the youngest patient so far - a six-week old baby boy whose father tested positive for the virus last week. The family lives in North Gyeongsang province and the father is a Shincheonji member.
Health officials have warned that case numbers could spike in coming days, noting that they have started testing Shincheonji's 200,000 members nationwide.
Church founder Lee Man-hee, who has quarantined himself in his home in Gyeonggi province surrounding Seoul, was expected to be tested yesterday.
Total case numbers have reached around 3,800, with most by far in Daegu.
Major religious organisations have cancelled gatherings, as small clusters of infections emerged in churches and hospitals nationwide.
South Korea's Catholic church cancelled masses at more than 1,700 locations - the first time it has done so in its 236-year history.
The Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul also cancelled Sunday service, choosing instead to put a sermon on YouTube for its 560,000 followers.
It is still not known how the outbreak from Shincheonji's Daegu branch started, but numbers surged after it was found that Patient No 31, a 61-year-old woman from Daegu, had attended two services despite having symptoms such as fever.
South Korean health officials then found that some Shincheonji members visited Wuhan, the epicentre of China's virus outbreak, in January. The church has a branch in Wuhan and 42 of its members had travelled to South Korea since July last year.
But it is not clear yet how many members went to Wuhan two months ago, and if that has anything to do with the outbreak in Daegu, health officials said yesterday.
Shincheonji's director of international missions has denied responsibility for the mass infections.
Mr Kim Shin-chang told CNN that the church has been transparent in cooperating with the government, providing a list of members and shutting down all offices to prevent further spread.
He also dismissed claims by former members who said church services required attendees to sit closely and not wear face masks. The practice has been blamed for the rapid spread of the virus.
Mr Kim said that since January, members with symptoms have been told to either wear masks or not attend services.
He also questioned if the authorities were trying to "exaggerate the link or possibly move the responsibility to Shincheonji".
South Korea has conducted coronavirus tests on 95,185 people, with 33,360 results still pending.
Another three deaths were recorded on Sunday, bringing the total to 20, while 30 people have recovered.