Officials in the South Korean city of Daegu have filed an $83 million lawsuit against the Shincheonji religious sect, accusing it of causing “massive damages” to the city’s public health after coronavirus cluster infections emerged among its congregants “triggering an uncontrollable spread” throughout Daegu, South Korean newspaper the Chosun Ilbo reported on Wednesday.
The lawsuit was filed last week against the church’s founder and leader, Lee Man-hee, and announced by Daegu city officials on Monday. The city is reportedly seeking total damages of about $121 million, for which Daegu officials said they would “provide proof at trial.”
According to the report, leaders of the notoriously secretive church – also referred to as a religious “sect” or “cult” in South Korea – refused to cooperate with local health authorities after they learned of a “massive” coronavirus outbreak among its members in February.
“We requested active cooperation from the Shincheonji sect in providing a list of members for testing, self-isolation, and quarantine, but the church left out names of members and worship centers which hindered quarantine activities,” a spokesman for the city of Daegu said.
In early March, South Korea’s Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip announced that at least 2,600 Shincheonji members in Daegu had tested positive for coronavirus, amounting to 62 percent of all cases in the city at the time. Concurrent reports indicated that the Shincheonji sect accounted for about 60 percent of all national cases at the time as well, prompting the mayor of Seoul, South Korea’s capital, to call for murder charges to be brought against the church’s leader, Lee Man-hee, in early March.
Officials in Seoul also filed a $166 million lawsuit against the church in March. According to Chosun Ilbo, Daegu officials previously won a court order to freeze the assets of all Shincheonji entities operating within the city, including those of sect leader Lee Man-hee.
In the face of the backlash, the Shincheonji church has blamed some “rogue” members for causing the outbreaks and subsequent “damage” to the city’s public health, according to the report.
In late February, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported that members of the Shincheonji Church were meeting in Wuhan, China – the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic – in December 2019, when the virus outbreak in Wuhan was first documented. The church claimed it stopped holding in-person meetings in Wuhan after members of its community became sick with the then-mysterious illness. According to the report, a Shincheonji member from Daegu visited China in January 2020. In February, South Korean health officials suspected that a cluster of infections in Cheongdo, located near Daegu, was linked to this church member.
Officially known as the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, the fringe church is regarded as a religious cult by most. Its founder and central leader, Lee Man-hee, claims to be the “second coming of Jesus Christ,” according to the report. The sect has approximately 250,000 members and is active in both South Korea and China.