SEOUL, South Korea -- A church whose leader claims he is an angel of Jesus has become the biggest cluster of viral infections in South Korea, where a surge in new cases raises fears that the outbreak is getting out of control.
A total of 152 cases of the new virus, including the country’s first death, have been found in the southeast city ofDaeguand nearby areas since Wednesday. Most have been linked to a Daegu branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, where two recent services were attended by a previously confirmed patient.
South Korea has a total of 204 cases of the virus, which causes COVID-19 disease.
Little is known about the “patient zero" except that the woman in her early 60s had no recent record of overseas travel and was diagnosed with pneumonia last weekend. She had initially resisted doctors’ recommendations to get tested for the virus, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Some 1,000 Shincheonji church followers who attended Sunday services with her have been quarantined at their homes while authorities screen them for the virus. Health authorities are also trying to monitor thousands of others.
The Shincheonji church blamed the woman for the spread of the disease, saying it has been advising followers since late January to stay home if they had traveled overseas or were experiencing even mild cold-like symptoms. Church officials said the woman assumed she was having the common cold.
Shincheonji, which claims 200,000 followers in South Korea, said it closed all of its 74 churches around the nation and told members to instead watch its services on YouTube.
Shincheonji, which translates as “new heaven and new earth,” was established in 1984 by Lee Man-hee, who has been accused by other Christian groups as a false prophet or a cult leader. The church describes Lee as “the Promised Pastor,” an attendant of Jesus sent to testify what he claims are the fulfilled prophecies from the Book of Revelation.
“Shincheonji followers believe Lee Man-hee is immortal and has an eternal life,” said Ji-il Tark at Busan Presbyterian University in South Korea. “To propagate their belief, they often approach their relatives and acquaintances or sneak to other churches without telling them they are Shincheonji members.”
Tark said Shincheonji followers are likely more vulnerable to virus infections as they often sit very closely on the floor during services. At Shincheonji, attending church-related gatherings “isn’t an option, but a requirement,” he said.
The church said in a statement it was fully cooperating with government quarantine efforts and accused mainstream church groups of spreading false claims, such as that it initially instructed followers to keep silent about the illness.
Associated Press writer Hyung-jin Kim contributed to this report.