New Delhi: More than 550,000 people in South Korea have signed a petition for the dissolution of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, which is known to be the epicentre of coronavirus in the country.
South Korea has reported 763 cases of people infected with coronavirus as of Monday. The figure is second only to mainland China, where the epidemic started.
The Shincheonji Church, which has more than 2,40,000 followers, hit the headlines when many cases of coronavirus were linked back to its branch in the town of Daegu.
According to the Korea Herald, 456 people associated with the Shincheonji Church tested positive for the coronavirus Monday. What has reportedly been causing more outrage is the fact that health authorities in the country have been trying to reach out to Shincheonji members in Daegu but have got no response from hundreds of its members.
According to health officials in the country, more than 1,250 church members have reported potential symptoms of coronavirus, and therefore the total number of people infected by the virus could increase.
The Shincheonji Church was founded in 1984 by Lee Man-hee, who claims to be an immortal prophet sent by Jesus Christ to prepare people for the end of the world. According to reports, only people who have completed a six-month education on the sect are formally enrolled as members and allowed to attend the services.
Shincheonji churches are present in 600 locations across 29 countries, including seven in the Chinese cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin. The sect’s website earlier stated that it opened a church last year in Wuhan. However, that information is no longer available. Wuhan is the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak.
According to the Korea Centre for Disease Control, the controversial church’s method of worshipping could have contributed to the spread of the virus, as members are expected to sit in tight rows and kneel and are not allowed to cover their faces with face masks or anything else.
Lee Ho-yeon, who left the church in 2015, said: “Unlike other churches, Shincheonji makes its members sit on the floor tightly together during services, in neat, military-like ranks and files… We were not supposed to have anything on our faces, like glasses or masks. We were trained to sing our hymns loudly.”
In response to the outrage against the church, Shincheonji authorities dismissed criticism of its practices and said members sat close together on the floor because local authorities would not give permits to build bigger churches.
At the Shincheonji Church in Daegu, a 61-year-old woman known as ‘Patient 31’ has been accused of being the reason for many other infections. According to a report in the New York Times, the woman checked into a hospital on 7 February due to a minor traffic accident and complained of a sore throat the next day. She, however, still went and attended the church service that Sunday.
The next day, she got a fever, but still went out the following Sunday (16 February) to attend church service again. At least 1,000 Shincheonji members were present there.
When doctors told ‘Patient 31’ to transfer to a bigger hospital, she refused, and it was only on 17 February (Monday), when she was extremely sick, that she got tested for the coronavirus. The results came back positive the next day.
The online petition to dissolve the Shincheonji Church by force was filed on the website of Cheong Wa Dae, the office of the President of South Korea, Moon Jae-in. Any petition that gets more than 200,000 signatures within a month requires an official response from the President himself.