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Megachurch In South Korea Accused Of Spreading Coronavirus

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

A megachurch in South Korea is at the center of the coronavirus outbreak in that country. There are more than 4,000 cases in South Korea, and more than half of those are members of the church. The church's critics accuse its leaders of obstructing official efforts to fight this outbreak. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul, the group's founder is now apologizing.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: At a training facility of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus outside Seoul, the group's founder, 84-year-old Lee Man-hee, addressed a crowd of journalists on Monday afternoon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEE MAN-HEE: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "People of South Korea, how can I apologize to you?" He said in a quavering voice. "I feel utterly ashamed. I bow down before you to ask your forgiveness." He knelt his forehead, nearly touching the ground. Protesters shouted at him in the background.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEE M: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "This is not about any individual. This is a huge disaster," he added. "We're doing everything we can to stop it. Now is not the time to judge who's wrong and who's right." The Seoul city government filed criminal charges against Lee on Sunday, saying his failure to turn over complete lists of church members amounts to homicide. He insists he's fully cooperating with authorities. The group admits that some of its members travelled from China to South Korea at the end of last year, possibly bringing the virus with them. Health authorities are testing around 200,000 of the church's members for infections, including Lee Man-hee himself.

Lee Jung-eun, a Ph.D. candidate at Seoul National University's religious studies department, says that before the epidemic, the church was growing robustly.

LEE JUNG-EUN: (Through interpreter) Shincheonji is the most prominent of the homegrown new religious movements. It's also the youngest and the most energetic. It's said that a third of its followers are from younger generations.

KUHN: In recent years, the church has filled vast arenas with his followers, such as this 2018 event in Seoul. Musicians wore tuxedos and traditional hanbok gowns. After the music, Lee Man-hee delivered a sermon punctuated by roars of approval from the crowd. Critics say the packed rows of believers and hearty amens are perfect for spreading viruses. Since the outbreak within its membership became known, the church has shut down all of its 1,100 churches and facilities nationwide. At a sermon in Daegu city last year, Lee foretold the coming of a new heaven and earth, or Shincheonji in Korean.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEE M: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "Six thousand years of God's history ends here in this world, in this time," he says. "Even the archenemy, Satan, will be captured and jailed. That's what the book of Revelation says. Then comes the Kingdom of God, the one that lives forever." Religious scholar Lee Jung-eun says this is how Shincheonji attracts followers - by promising them eternal life, not after they die but in their current bodies.

LEE J: (Through interpreter) Lee Man-hee is supposed to be immortal. Shincheonji believers think that he will not die, nor will they, if they make it into a group of 144,000 believers whom he has promised eternal life.

KUHN: She says Shincheonji and other groups like it have thrived under South Korea's laissez-faire religious policies.

LEE J: (Through interpreter) Religions are seen to have their own space and their own logic separate from the rest of society. This view has contributed to the emergence and growth of various sects and a sort of neoliberal free market of religion.

KUHN: But the government is under pressure to act against the Shincheonji Church of Jesus. More than a million people have signed a petition on the presidential office's website calling for the government to disband the group.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOR'S "VAULTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: March 3, 2020 at 12:00 AM EST
Lee Man-hee is 88 years old. This story incorrectly says 84.

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