Coronavirus: South Korea arrests Shincheonji church leader for stalling virus containment efforts

FILE PHOTO: People watch a TV broadcasting a news report on a news conference held by Lee Man-hee, founder of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony, in Seoul, South Korea, March 2, 2020. REUTERS/Heo Ran

The leader of a controversial religious group that was a hotbed of infection in the early stages of South Korea's coronavirus outbreak was arrested on Saturday morning (Aug 1) on suspicion of obstructing the government's efforts to contain the virus' spread.

An arrest warrant for 88-year-old Lee Man-hee, founder of the Shincheonji Church, was issued by the district court in Suwon City, south of Seoul, following a 10-hour pre-trial hearing on Friday.

Despite Lee's advanced age, the court said he was healthy enough to stand trial while held in custody at a detention centre.

Lee is accused of hampering virus containment efforts by ordering church officials not to disclose followers' identities or the locations of the secretive indoctrination sessions that were blamed for fuelling the spread of contagion in the country earlier this year.

Lee also stands accused of embezzling 5.6 billion won (US$4.69 million) from church funds and directing his followers to destroy incriminating evidence - something the court said he would continue to do if allowed to remain free while standing trial, according to Yonhap news agency.

A Shincheonji spokesman called the court's decision to issue an arrest warrant "regrettable" and said the church's members would do their utmost "to let the truth prevail during the court trial".

Lee's arrest follows the detention of three senior church officials on Tuesday on charges including violation of the country's infectious disease control law and obstruction of justice.

They are accused of misleading health authorities with falsified documents that failed to accurately identify the church's number of followers - believed to be around 215,000 - and the venues it used during the early stages of the outbreak in February.

Shincheonji Church has been linked to more than 5,200 coronavirus infections in the country - about 36 per cent of the total - with many followers in the southeastern city of Daegu contracting the virus.

South Korea was an early epicentre for the pandemic but has largely brought its outbreak under control through aggressive contact tracing measures and strict social distancing regulations.

The country recorded 36 new cases on Friday, 22 of which were imported, raising the total caseload to 14,305 with 301 deaths, according to the Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

Yoon Jae-duk, an activist who described the 36-year-old Shincheonji Church as a doomsday cult, said growing public resentment had forced it to stop most of its offline activities aimed at recruiting followers.

"About 80 per cent of trainees being educated to join the church have left, and there has been some 30-40 per cent decrease in the church population", he said.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.

For the latest updates on the coronavirus, visit here.