|Lee Man-hee, the founder of Shincheonji Church of Jesus speaks during a press conference held on March 3 in Gyeonggi Province./ Korea Times file|
By Kim Se-jeong
The Seoul Metropolitan Government said Wednesday it had filed a compensation suit against the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a religious sect blamed for the faster spread of the COVID-19 outbreak in Korea, and its founder Lee Man-hee.
"We believe the church responded slowly to the city's request to hand out a contact list of its members and that caused us serious problems," a city official said. The local government is demanding at least 300 million won in order to have the case heard by a three judge panel. Claims up to 200 million won are adjudicated by a single judge.
Seoul has become the first local government to file a compensation suit against the sect. Separately, the prosecution is currently investigating to see if the founder Lee ordered the church administration to delay the disclosure of its membership.
As the confirmed cases skyrocketed among Shincheonji followers in Daegu last month, the central government asked the church for the contact information of its more than 200,000 registered members. It eventually gave the information and the central government shared this with local governments.
Separately, local governments went after Shincheonji-related facilities in their areas and closed them down in an attempt to prevent the possible spread of the virus as well as enabling them to cross-check the information provided by Shincheonji.
Shincheonji has been widely criticized for its role in spreading COVID-19 in Korea. The church quickly became the subject of scorn and even open-hatred nationwide.
This led Lee to hold a press conference in which he apologized for the church's role in the spread of the outbreak.
One critic filed an online petition at Cheong Wa Dae asking for the church to be "disbanded," which has gained more than 1.4 million endorsements so far. It is unconstitutional to disband a religious group, but the central government said it could hold it accountable for failing to deliver accurate information in a time of national crisis.
Shincheonji claimed that the condemnation by society also made its followers victims, asking people to stop making negative comments. One follower allegedly committed suicide due to the large amount of criticism of the church and its members.