South Korea accuses pastor of breaking rules as coronavirus cases surge

Health Ministry files complaint against him after 240 cases linked to church led by him

Seoul posted a record 146 new cases on Aug 16, 2020.
Seoul posted a record 146 new cases on Aug 16, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL • South Korea yesterday accused a conservative pastor of violating self-isolation rules and obstructing contact tracing at a church where 240 infections have fuelled the country's worst outbreak in more than five months.

The focus on the Sarang Jeil Church, led by Reverend Jun Kwang-hoon, revived bad memories of the country's biggest outbreak, among followers of a secretive Christian sect back in February.

South Korea reported 279 new cases yesterday, its biggest daily increase since early March, and more than double the 103 reported last Friday. Most of the new infections were found in and around Seoul.

The new cases bring the nation's total to 15,318, while the number of fatalities remained at 305, according to data from the Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

Officials said 245 of the new cases were in the Seoul, Gyeonggi and Incheon region - home to almost half of the South Korean population.

Aside from the infections linked to the church, there were also smaller clusters, including some 30 cases linked to a Starbucks outlet in the city of Paju, north of Seoul.

The surge in Covid-19 cases prompted the authorities to reimpose tighter social distancing curbs in the Seoul metropolitan area yesterday. The level two social distancing alert, which will stay in effect for the next two weeks, prohibits operations of "high-risk" facilities, such as those allowing spectators at sporting events.

"The recent cases indicate that we are at an early stage of another wave of infections, and if we don't keep them under control as much as possible, it can lead to serious consequences such as nationwide transmissions and a massive hike in the number of patients," Minister of Health Park Neung-hoo said at a media briefing yesterday.

The Health Ministry said it had filed a complaint against Rev Jun, an outspoken government critic, for violating self-isolation rules by participating in a rally on Saturday, and for obstructing a medical investigation into the outbreak by failing to provide a full list of church members for testing and tracing.

Rev Jun's church, Sarang Jeil Church, did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.

Officials said 245 of the new cases were in the Seoul, Gyeonggi and Incheon region - home to almost half of the South Korean population.

On Saturday, a National Liberation Day holiday in both North and South Korea, thousands of demonstrators participated in street protests against South Korean President Moon Jae-in's policies, defying a ban on rallies in the capital Seoul.

President Moon said the latest outbreak posed the country's biggest challenge to efforts to combat the coronavirus since the large cluster of infections traced to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a secretive religious sect, six months ago.

The South Korean authorities arrested the sect's founder Lee Man-hee earlier this month for allegedly hiding crucial information from contact tracers. The Shincheonji cluster fuelled more than 5,000 Covid-19 infections between February and March, making South Korea the world's second worst-hit by the virus at the time.

President Moon warned of "stern and strong measures" against "some churches", calling their behaviour an "unforgivable act that threatens public lives".

REUTERS, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2020, with the headline 'S. Korea accuses pastor of breaking rules as cases surge '. Print Edition | Subscribe