A 'doomsday cult' at the centre of South Korea's coronavirus outbreak was founded by a man who claims he is the second coming of Jesus Christ.
The secretive Shincheonji Church of Jesus and a worshipper known as "Patient 31" have been linked to many of the country's infections amid a doubling of cases in the last week.
The outbreak has cast a new spotlight on the apocalyptic church founded in 1984 by Lee Man-hee, who has promised to take almost 150,000 followers with him to heaven on the Day of Judgement.
Lee, 88, claims he is the only person who can interpret the Bible and his devout worshippers – who are forbidden from wearing glasses or face masks during services – believe he is immortal.
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In response to the outbreak, Lee said in a message to the church: “This disease outbreak is the work of the devil, which is hellbent on stopping the rapid growth of the Shincheonji."
South Korea, which has raised its infectious disease alert to the highest level, reported 231 new cases on Monday, bringing its total to 833.
Eight people have died.
Many cases have been linked to Shincheonji's church in the city of Daegu, where the super spread known as "Patient 31" – a 61-year-old woman – attended services.
The government had ordered self-quarantines and was testing about 9,500 people who attended services at the Daegu branch.
There are fears that hundreds of them could be carrying and spreading the virus.
Health officials had been unable to find or contact more than 700 members as of last Friday, the New York Times reported.
Shincheonji, which translates as “new heaven and land”, has closed all of its branches and urged its followers to watch services on YouTube.
Also known as the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony, the shadowy sect is seen as a cult by mainstream churches in South Korea.
Health officials and former members have said the church's methods and teachings could have helped to fuel the spread of the SARS-like illness.
Members sit elbow-to-elbow and knee-to-knee on the floor during services that last one to two hours.
Afterwards, they go into the streets to preach to passers-by or meet in smaller groups. Married women are said to host potluck meals.
Lee Ho-yeon, a former member who left the church in 2015, told the New York Times that worshippers are told not to be afraid of illness.
She added: "We were taught not to care about such worldly things like jobs, ambition or passion. Everything was focused on proselytising, even when we were sick.”
Moon Yoo-ja, 60, said she spent years trying to save her daughter from the church.
She added: “Some housewives packed up and joined the church, abandoning their husbands and children.”
An unnamed follower told Nocut News that unmarried women and men gather on the top floor of the eight-storey building during prayer sessions, while married women assemble on the fourth floor and married men meet on the seventh floor.
Members crowd into corridors where they sit shoulder-to-shoulder and chant and praise God “at the top of their voice” for half an hour and listen to a sermon for about an hour, the follower said.
The person added: “We were told to remove face masks while attending prayer sessions."
Shincheonji claims to have 150,000 followers and 12 congregations in South Korea.
It is alleged to have set up a church in Wuhan – where the coronavirus outbreak began in late December – last year.
South Korean health officials were probing ties between the church and Hubei province, which includes Wuhan.
Shincheonji has been accused of recruiting new members by sending undercover members to infiltrate mainstream churches or luring people with advertised services such as foreign language lessons.
The church allegedly has study rooms where recruits are clandestinely educated.
Pastor Shin Hyun-uk, an anti-cult campaigner, fears there will be many more cases linked to Shincheonji church.
He told the South China Morning Post: “Their so-called ‘harvesters’ go to other Christian churches, take part in prayer sessions there and engage in other activities in order to woo away ordinary believers."
He added: “I doubt whether the church would come clean about the movements of its believers who were with the 31st patient and cooperate with authorities in tracing contacts for fear that it would reveal their secret evangelistic activities."
When the first infections were reported, members were urged to lie about being Lee's followers, but the church denied that it was official policy.
Experts are still investigating how Patient 31 became infected.
She told officials she had not left the country or had contact with anyone who had tested positive.
She also denied attending the funeral of Lee's brother in Cheongdo earlier this month.
The woman, who was the 31st person to be diagnosed, was hospitalised after a car crash and developed a fever while she was being treated.
But she slipped out of the hospital to join a service attended by hundreds.
She refused to be tested for coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, but finally agreed after her symptoms became worse.
Lee, meanwhile, has told church members to follow government advice and watch services online for the time being.
Kim Simon, a spokesman, said the church would take action to curb the spread and cooperate with health authorities.
In a YouTube video, he said some of the church's followers had been victimised.
He added: "We handed over a complete list of devotee names of the Daegu branch of the church to health authorities, but the list was leaked.
"Things such as forced leave, discrimination, offence and even pressure to retire, that should not happen, are now happening against Shincheonji devotees in the local communities.
"We are sincerely urging everyone recognise that the Shincheonji Church and its devotees are the biggest victims of COVID-19, and refrain from hate and groundless attack."
The church claims it had been telling followers since late January to stay at home if they had travelled abroad or had flu-like symptoms.
In Daegu, public buildings such as museums and libraries have been shut in a desperate bid to prevent the virus from spreading.
Public gatherings have been banned.
Shops have been selling out of surgical masks and food amid a panic over the illness.
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