South Korean sect leader nabbed for hindering Covid-19 effort

People watch a news conference held by Lee Man-hee, founder of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony, on March 2, 2020.
People watch a news conference held by Lee Man-hee, founder of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony, on March 2, 2020.PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL • The elderly leader of a secretive South Korean sect at the centre of the country's early coronavirus outbreak was arrested yesterday for allegedly hindering the government's effort to contain the pandemic.

Mr Lee Man-hee, 88, is head of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, which is often condemned as a cult.

People linked to the church accounted for more than half of South Korea's 4,000-plus corona-virus cases in February when the country was enduring one of the worst early outbreaks in the world.

As at July 19, those connected with the church made up 38 per cent of all confirmed cases in the country, according to the Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mr Lee is accused of giving inaccurate records of church gatherings and false lists of its members to health authorities.

The judge said there "have been circumstances indicating systematic attempts to destroy evidence" by Mr Lee, Yonhap news agency reported.

Shincheonji has claimed its members face social stigma and discrimination if their beliefs become publicly known, dissuading some from responding to official inquiries.

It released a statement yesterday stressing that Mr Lee's arrest "doesn't mean a guilty verdict".

Mr Lee was only concerned about the authorities' "excessive requests" for personal details, and "never ordered" his subordinates to withhold information, the church added.

The sect, founded in 1984, proclaims that Mr Lee has donned the mantle of Jesus Christ and will take 144,000 people with him to heaven on the day of judgment.

It is known to have some 200,000 followers.

Mr Lee apologised back in March for the spread of the disease.

South Korea announced 31 new cases yesterday, taking its total to 14,336.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 02, 2020, with the headline 'S. Korean sect leader nabbed for hindering Covid-19 effort'. Print Edition | Subscribe