A mysterious doomsday cult that claims its leader is an immortal reincarnation of Jesus Christ is at the centre of a “superspreader” cluster of coronavirus cases in South Korea.
A sudden rise in the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 has been recorded in South Korea in the past 24 hours, with 433 patients now being treated.
Of those, over 150 are in Daegu, South Korea’s fourth-largest city.
Two people have already died in what the authorities are calling a “grave” and “unprecedented” outbreak. Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip said the outbreak had entered "a serious new phase".
Daegu is now on total lockdown. The south-eastern city’s normally bustling streets are deserted as its population of roughly 2.5 million people have hunkered down in their homes to wait for the crisis to pass.
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A majority of the cases in Daegu have been traced back to a branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a cult that claims that the Bible is written in a code that only its founder Lee Man-hee can understand.
A woman in her sixties, named only as Patient 31, is known to have attended a number of services at the church and is thought to be at the centre of the outbreak.
It is unclear how she contracted the illness, as she has never visited Wuhan. She has told doctors that she hasn’t been abroad recently, or met anyone that appeared to be infected.
More than 60% of the South Korean cases are linked to the Shincheonji Church.
Church leader Lee, 88, said: “The outbreak of the disease is a devilry committed by Satan in order to stop our church from growing.”
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Meanwhile, a former cult member who now campaigns against the group – Pastor Shin Hyun-wook – said: “Shincheonji followers are insensitive to catching virus …they believe people get ill because they lack faith.”
Shincheonji said it had closed all of its 74 centres in South Korea and advised followers to follow its services on YouTube instead.
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Jun Eun-kyeong, head of Korea’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, said an examination of 4,500 members of the Shincheonji Church showed signs of Covid-19 infection.
President Moon Jae-in has described the situation as “serious” and the authorities have said that they expect more infections to be reported.
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In a televised statement, Prime Minister Chung Se-kyun declared Daegu “a special management zone.”
“A month into the (Covid-19 disease) outbreak, we have entered an emergency phase,” he said.
“Our efforts until now had been focused on blocking the illness from entering the country. But we will now shift the focus on preventing the illness from spreading further in local communities.”
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