South Korean Leader Begs Forgiveness for his Role in Spreading Coronavirus Disease

BBC News, South Korea – The leader of a religious sect in South Korea has publicly apologized and begged forgiveness for the role he and his followers played in spreading the coronavirus (COVID-19) to thousands of others there. 

“I would like to offer my sincere apology to the people on behalf of the members,” said Lee Man-hee, head of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a new religious movement (NRM) group. “We did our best but weren’t able to contain it fully.”

Lee Man-hee, head of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in South Korea, bows down in apology following accusations by South Korean officials of spreading the coronavirus epidemic.

Wearing a white mask and fogged glasses, the 88-year-old Lee suddenly stood up in the middle of reading his remarks at a hastily-arranged news conference outside the Shincheonji Church in  Gapyeong on March 3rd. He twice silently knelt beside the desk he was seated at and bowed his head to the ground over clasped hands, a significant gesture of contrition in Korean custom.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Seoul, 57% of all patients infected with the coronavirus in South Korea were affiliated with the religion that Lee founded in 1984.

Lee is the charismatic, self-proclaimed messiah (“the second coming of Jesus”) of the church he founded in 1984. He has been widely criticized for failing to do enough to stop the virus after one of its members tested positive and infected many others.

A 61-year-old female church member developed a fever on February 10 but refused to be tested until a week later. By that time, she had participated in at least two services (along with more than 1,000 other followers) at a Shincheonji Church in the city of Daegu. She also traveled to crowded spots in the capital of Seoul (metro population of 25.6 million) before she contacted a hospital to get tested.

The next day, Feb. 18, health authorities announced she was the country’s 31st confirmed coronavirus case. After that, the number of confirmed cases in South Korea skyrocketed with the majority in the region of Daegu. As of March 22, the country had recorded 8,961 confirmed coronavirus cases (75% of them in Daegu) and 111 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Seoul.

“I don’t know how this happened, but we will make utmost of efforts, and we are aware that we were wrong,” Lee said at the news conference. “We thank the government for making efforts when what we had tried to stop the coronavirus spread wasn’t enough.”

South Korean soldiers spray disinfectant in front of a branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu last week. Some government officials are calling for the sect to be dissolved and its founder to be charged with “murder through willful negligence.”

Lee’s news conference came after Seoul’s mayor filed a criminal complaint asking for an investigation into Lee and other church leaders on charges including murder for their failure to cooperate with health officials. Lee had previously called coronavirus the “devil’s deed” designed to stop his church’s growth (he claims about 200,000 followers in South Korea) but, following government orders, he has closed all of the church’s 74 sanctuaries around the country.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has declared the city of Daegu and parts of the surrounding province as “special disaster zones” because of the unusually high number of confirmed cases in that area. Growing anger over the sect’s handling of the outbreak has sparked a petition calling for the church to be disbanded. Nearly 1.2 million people have already signed it.

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Washington, DC) recommends that travelers avoid all nonessential travel to South Korea. For an update on the worldwide pandemic, please scroll down to see the article Tracking the Global Coronavirus Outbreak.

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