Published On: Wed, Jun 24th, 2020

South Korea sues religious sect over COVID spread as it grapples with 2nd wave

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Seoul — The city of Daegu, once the epicenter of South Korea’s coronavirus epidemic, has filed a civil lawsuit aimed at forcing a fringe religious sect to pay more than $80 million for allegedly allowing the disease to spread. The suit claims the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a cult-like group with more than 193,000 followers across South Korea, became an incubator for the virus in Daegu by ignoring the city’s quarantine efforts.

On February 18 a member of the Daegu Shincheonji congregation was confirmed as South Korea’s coronavirus patient No. 31. The church continued to hold large gatherings in defiance of official guidelines in the city barring large meetings. The virus spread like wild fire through the church, with more than 1,000 cases confirmed in just 10 days.

Workers from a disinfection service company sanitize a street in front of a branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony where a woman known as "Patient 31" attended a service in Daegu
Workers from a disinfection service company sanitize a street in front of a branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony where a woman known as “Patient 31” attended a service in Daegu, South Korea, February 19, 2020.

REUTERS/Yonhap


Many Shincheonji members refused to confirm their attendance in the church’s meetings, making it difficult for officials to track the spread of the virus and letting the situation escalate.

Daegu city estimated total financial losses due to the outbreak of about $121 million. It has filed for financial compensation from the sect of $82.3 million. 

Before the civil suit was filed a court had already permitted city authorities to temporarily seize some assets of the church and its leaders.

City officials said at a news conference on Tuesday that the Sincheonji’s cult characteristics, including followers being encouraged not to reveal membership and the church’s leadership failing to hand over complete lists of members and facilities, made the group culpable.

Concern grows over “super-spreaders” infecting large groups of people

Shicheonji says it was human error, not a lack of cooperation, which led to incomplete accounting of members and facilities.

In a telephone interview with CBS News, a spokeswoman for the Shincheonji church said Tuesday that it had not yet been served with court documents, but that it would consider the legal process as it develops.

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Lee Man-hee, leader of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, bows during a press conference at a facility of the church in Gapyeong on March 2, 2020.

POOL/AFP/Getty


Shincheonji has offered donations of almost $10 million to various organizations, but all have refused the peace offerings, said the representative, who did not wish to be named.

“We’ve fully recovered with the help of our country’s medical system and the government,” the spokeswoman said, adding that adding that 4,000 members of the church who survived the disease had also volunteered to donate blood plasma to help treat other patients.

The second wave

The Daegu outbreak came early in the pandemic, and for weeks now South Korea has largely managed to keep a grip on COVID- 19. The country is no longer enforcing social distancing and schools have resumed classes, but the capital is now confronting a localized “second wave” outbreak.

“We believe the second wave has been running since it was triggered by the May holiday,” said Jung Eun-kyeong, director of Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, referring to a holiday at the end of last month that saw many South Koreans travel and visit newly reopened bars and restaurants.

Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon said this week that the capital is once again at a critical juncture, and it may be necessary to bring back social distancing requirements.

“We have not reached the end of the long the tunnel. On the contrary, bad signs of long-term war and a second wave are being detected in Seoul and other parts of the metropolitan area,” he said.

Park said Seoul would go back to social distancing if there were more than 30 new confirmed cases for three consecutive days, or if the city’s hospitals reached 70% capacity.

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A Russian-flagged cargo ship is seen docked at the Gamcheon Port in Busan, South Korea, June 23, 2020.

Yonhap/Reuters


A Russian ship docked in the southeastern city of Busan, meanwhile, has become the latest cause for concern in South Korea. The Russian-flagged refrigerator vessel carrying frozen seafood docked with 21 crew members, and 16 of them were confirmed to have the virus as of Tuesday.

The sailors were showing symptoms of the virus when it docked, but local officials said the captain failed to notified authorities and they were allowed to disembark. Now authorities are racing to test 176 people, included cargo handlers, customs officials, mechanics and interpreters who came into contact with the crew. 



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