|Quarantine officials disinfect a branch of the minor religious sect Shincheonji in Suncheon, South Jeolla Province, Monday. /Yonhap|
By Bahk Eun-ji
The Shincheonji Church of Jesus, which has been linked to more than half of Korea's COVID-19 cases, is facing mounting criticism for the claim that Shincheonji members were the "biggest victims of the coronavirus," according to critics Monday.
Since posting a video clip on YouTube Sunday, the veiled homegrown religious group has been the target of public anger because its churches turned out to be hotbeds for the recent surge in coronavirus infections in the southeastern regions of Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province.
In the video clip, a representative of the church said they will fight against the media's "groundless" reports and rumors about them. The church also claimed they were "the biggest victims of a virus that came from China," and they were deeply concerned about media claims that the church has been hiding something about the virus infection.
"We are urging you to stop the baseless hatred against our Shincheonji followers," he said in the video clip.
In an attempt to calm the public criticism, the church said it asked its 9,294 members of the Daegu church to remain under quarantine and insisted in a separate statement on Sunday that all followers were being checked for the virus.
As of Monday, 458 of the country's 763 confirmed cases of the highly contagious virus are linked to members of the group and people who came into contact with them, according to the data by the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).
When the video clip went viral, an online petition, calling for forceful dispersal of the church group has filed with Cheong Wa Dae on the day. One citizen who agreed the petition wrote that "The reason for the spread of the COVID-19 in Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province is mainly due to Shincheonji's unethical dogma and its insincere collaboration with the government's quarantine efforts." The petition gained more than 200,000 supporters in just one day.
Angry netizens also wrote in the comments of the video clip on YouTube, saying "It is absurd that they insist they are victims. Shincheonji followers are definitely the perpetrators." Another user also wrote "We should call it 'Shincheonji-19,' instead of 'COVID-19.'"
Yim Hee-young, a 34-year-old homemaker and a follower of the Presbyterian Church of Korea in Seoul, also criticized the Shincheonji Church for being responsible for the COVID-19 virus spreading across the country.
"Shincheonji followers have always been claiming they are victims among Christian believers, not to mention in this situation. They have always been hiding, and refused to reveal themselves. It is clear that they are responsible for the virus spreading in the region as well as this country because of their beliefs," Yim said.
In regard to the public outrage, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, said that the government should dig into secret places run by the religious group and track all members to contain the further spread of the virus.
"Considering the secretive character of the religious group, we cannot entirely believe the list of followers they are providing. The government should secure the list of their members for a full inspection as soon as possible, even by using forced measures such as seizure of their buildings," Park wrote on his Facebook page on Sunday.
Founded here in 1984, the Shincheonji Church has 120,000 members around the world. The church teaches that Lee Man-hee, the founder, is Jesus Christ returned and only he can interpret the Bible correctly. In Korea, the church is notorious for soliciting money from members and for infiltrating other churches as a strategy to gain new converts.