The leader of a mysterious church in South Korea was arrested Saturday on charges of obstructing the government’s effort to contain the coronavirus outbreak.
Lee Man-hee, the chairman of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, is accused of withholding information from health officials as they worked to trace infection routes starting in February and embezzling millions of dollars worth of church funds. He was questioned for eight hours by a judge in Suwon, which is south of Seoul, on Friday.
Lee, whose followers believe he is immortal, is part of a small but fervent anti-lockdown movement in South Korea that authorities say has contributed to the spread of the coronavirus.
Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon urged law enforcement to act out of concern for residents after health officials said more than one-third of cases in the country have come from the Shincheonji church. More than 1 million South Koreans have signed a petition calling for Lee’s church to be dissolved over its failure to adhere to restrictions installed by the South Korean government.
“The prosecution should investigate and punish key leaders of the Shincheonji [church], accountable for the recent spread of the deadly virus, in a swift and stern manner,” Park said on Monday.
South Korea has been heralded by health experts as a leading example of how to mitigate the spread of the disease through social distancing measures and contract tracing of those who have contracted the disease.
Lee asked for forgiveness for whatever role his church members played in spreading the disease. He said the church would take steps to provide the government with identification of its members for further tracing and testing.
“The Shincheonji church has pledged to actively cooperate with the government and submit the entire list of our members,” Lee said.
Of the more than 15,000 cases of the coronavirus within South Korea, more than one-third have come from members of Lee’s church. Church representative Kim Young-eun told the Associated Press that “the truth is clearly proved in court.”