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The doomsday church that is at the heart of South Korea's COVID-19 crisis was holding prayer sermons in Wuhan, China, where the illness originated, until December.
About 200 members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus met at the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak and mostly ignored rumors of the illness that began to swirl as early as November, a kindergarten teacher told the South China Morning Post.
However, she refused to believe that Wuhan-based members could have played a part in the outbreak in Daegu and the rest of South Korea because "none of our brothers and sisters in Wuhan have been infected," she said.
"Shincheonji holds that it is the only real church that upholds the biblical truth and all other churches — mainstream or cults — are evil," a former missionary said.
Believers of a religious cult that is at the center of South Korea's coronavirus outbreak were meeting in Wuhan, China, in December and stopped only after people in their community began to come down with the then unknown illness.
An estimated 200 Chinese members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus gathered for prayer sessions in Wuhan, the South China Morning Post reported. Wuhan is where the COVID-19 virus originated. The coronavirus has now infected more than 81,000 people around the world. Mainland China has the most cases — 78,064 and is followed by South Korea with 1,261 and Italy with 323. Almost 700 people aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which was quarantined for weeks in Yokohama, Japan, also tested positive for the sickness.
"Rumours about a virus began to circulate in November but no one took them seriously," an anonymous 28-year-old kindergarten teacher who belongs to Shincheonji told the Post. "I was in Wuhan in December when our church suspended all gatherings as soon as we learned about [the coronavirus]."
The churchgoers went home for the Lunar New Year in January. All the Shincheonji members who met in Wuhan are now in quarantine, the Post reported, but a follower traveled from Daegu, South Korea, to China in January. It's unclear where they went or where they are now.
Chinese sources told the Post that 20,000 Chinese residents follow the Shincheonji church. A majority of them reside in big cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Dalian, Changchun, and Shenyang.
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A Shincheonji churchgoer sparks a 'superspreader' event
Shincheonji, which has almost 250,000 followers, was established in 1984 by Lee Man-hee, who claims he is the second coming of Jesus Christ and can take 144,000 people with him to heaven on Judgment Day.
A "superspreader" event involving a 61-year-old woman at the church's Daegu branch, the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony, triggered nearly half of South Korea's COVID-19 infections, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Twelve people have died, officials told the Post.
The woman, identified as "Patient 31," didn't get herself tested for the coronavirus because she hadn't traveled internationally and thought she had simply picked up the common cold. Over two weekends, she came in contact with over 1,000 churchgoers who met at Daegu's Shincheonji outpost for tightly packed prayer services. Daegu Mayor Kwon Young-jin asked all of them to "stay at home isolated from their families."
In the days since the discovery of Patient 31, 200,000 South Korean members of the doomsday cult have been tested for the coronavirus.
A health official leading the charge in Daegu's fight against COVID-19 tested positive for the virus and only then acknowledged that he is a member of the church cult. That caused 50 other medical officials to be quarantined alongside him. A police officer and elementary-school teacher did the same.
South Korea was also shaken by a second cluster of infections discovered in a hospital in Cheongdo County, a county near Daegu. One hundred patients were infected and seven died, The New York Times reported. South Korean health officials are now investigating whether these cases are in any way connected to a funeral ceremony that was held over three days at the hospital, according to the Post.
'Branded as a cult'
A pastor in Hubei, China, the province where Wuhan is, defended Shincheonji members, telling the Post they work hard and tried to promote their faith and convert nonbelievers even during the coronavirus crisis.
The kindergarten teacher wouldn't comment on whether any Shincheonji members from Wuhan had traveled to South Korea recently but also insisted that they had nothing to do with the mass COVID-19 cases that have erupted there.
"I don't think the virus came from us because none of our brothers and sisters in Wuhan have been infected," she told the Post. "I don't know about members in other places but at least we are clean. None of us have reported sick. There are so many Chinese traveling to South Korea, it's quite unfair to pin [the disease] on us."
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The woman said a 2018 police raid of the group's "holy temple" in Hankou, China, during which they were "branded as a cult," didn't affect members' beliefs. They simply began to pray in smaller groups.
"We are aware of all the negative reporting out there after the outbreak in South Korea, but we do not want to defend ourselves in public because that will create trouble with the government," she said. "We just want to get through the crisis first."
Other churches are 'evil'
Bill Zhang, a Shanghai resident and a former missionary for Shincheonji, echoed that sentiment.
"The Shincheonji church in Shanghai has been raided many times and police spoke to church leaders regularly," he told the Post. "But the church members simply continued their meetings in smaller groups of eight to 10 people and regrouped when the surveillance was relaxed."
The church's secretive nature poses a challenge for authorities looking to put an end to their activities, the 33-year-old Zhang said, adding that the branch in his neighborhood alone drew in between 300 and 400 people to its twice-a-week meetings.
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"Shincheonji holds that it is the only real church that upholds the biblical truth and all other churches — mainstream or cults — are evil," he said.
In Daegu, a lot of people are angry at church members who health officials have been unable to track down after news of Patient 31 broke.
"I don't care whether they are a cult or not," Park Ji-hyok told The New York Times. "What makes me angry is that many church members have gone into hiding, rather than cooperating with the government" in controlling the spread of the coronavirus.
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