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Shincheonji, a veiled Christian sect, at center of virus outbreak

Feb. 20, 2020 - 15:57 By Ock Hyun-ju

At the center of a local outbreak of coronavirus infections in Daegu City is a much-veiled Christian sect that goes by the name of Shincheonji Church of Jesus, Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony.

 As of Thursday afternoon, 43 of the country’s 104 cases were confirmed to be linked to Sunday services at the sect’s branch in Daegu, which was attended by a 61-year-old woman who tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday.

Concerns are growing over a further rise in the number of infections, as Shincheonji Church’s Sunday services are typically packed, with people sitting next to each other closely on the floor.

The woman, the 31st patient here, visited the church on four occasions -- twice before she showed symptoms for the virus and twice afterward on Feb. 9 and 16.

A combined 1,001 people -- mostly from Daegu and the North and South Gyeongsang Provinces, and six from Gwacheon, Gyeonggi Province -- attended the same church services.

Among them, some 90 said they have symptoms of the virus and 515 did not, while some 396 people could not be reached, according to the Daegu city government.

Health authorities secured the Daegu unit of Shincheonji Church’ membership list and those who attended the same Sunday services as the 31st patient has since been placed in self-isolation.

Shincheonji Church, which is said to have 12 large units across the country, said in a statement that it will suspend church services and gatherings, replacing them with online services. The Daegu unit was shut down Wednesday.

During the Sunday services, Shincheonji followers shout “Amen” loudly and their prayer sessions involve close physical contact, such as putting arms around the next person’s shoulders, according to a former Shincheonji follower quoted by local media. 

The major routes of coronavirus infection are respiratory droplets and close bodily contact transmission. Chinese authorities on Wednesday admitted to a possibility of aerosol infection, meaning people may be able to contract the virus by inhaling infectious particles floating in the air.

Founded in 1984 by Lee Man-hee, who claims to be a prophet for Christ, Shincheonji Church is also known for its avid and secretive missionary work in local communities, recruiting potential followers at cafes or other churches without revealing their identities.

“Shincheonji churchgoers do not even inform their family members that they are followers,” Pastor Shin Hyun-wook, an anti-cult campaigner, was quoted as saying.

“Shincheonji followers are insensitive to getting illness because they believe eternal life. They believe that those who get illness and die end up dying because of lack of faith,” he added.

In Korea, the minor Christian sect, which has some 200,000 followers here and abroad, has been regarded as heretical by Protestant churches. Its leader came under the media spotlight in 2007 when a MBC TV report claimed that followers worship Lee as having eternal life.