A controversial religious group is at the center of South Korea's coronavirus outbreak

More than half of South Korea's novel coronavirus cases can be linked to the Shincheonji religious group. Officials say one member attended services in the southern city of Daegu while infected. Religious services have since been shut down to stop the spread. CNN's Paula Hancocks reports.

Posted: Feb 23, 2020 6:50 AM
Updated: Feb 23, 2020 6:50 AM

More than half of South Korea's novel coronavirus cases are linked to a branch of a controversial religious group in the southern city of Daegu.

At least 231 of the country's 433 confirmed cases are associated with the Shincheonji religious group, according to South Korea's Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (KCDC).

The total number of cases reported in South Korea in the past 24 hours stands at 229, after 142 new cases were confirmed overnight.

Around 9,300 Shincheonji members are being put into self-isolation and will be tested, the country's Ministry of Health and Welfare said Saturday.

The Shincheonji is centered around the personality of its founder and chairman, Lee Man-hee. On a website believed to be the group's official homepage, the group heavily suggests that Lee is the "Promised Pastor" mentioned in the Bible. The passage it highlights suggests that the Promised Pastor is the second coming of Jesus Christ.

Members of the group congregate in a way that puts them in close contact with one another for long periods of time.

KCDC Director Jung Eun-Kyeong said at a press briefing on Friday: "(We are) seeing that there is a possibility that the characteristics of many people sitting close together in a very confined space and holding service for more than an hour ... (could have led to) a few who were exposed infecting many (other) infectees."

The group said it "deeply regrets" the outbreak which occurred in their Daegu branch, in a statement released online Friday.

It said its "services, gatherings, and mission activity" have been stopped and all its buildings are being sanitized.

The group also expressed concern over what it says is "false information" that has been circulating about it, especially reports that it is the "'main culprit in the spread of virus,' referring to our 'unusual service style.'"

It added that it had to hold services on the floor to "maximize the number of occupants in our small space -- which was due to Shincheonji not being allowed our rightful building permit."

CNN has attempted to contact the Shincheonji group for comment.

The group has previously been described as a cult. John Everard, a former British diplomat and Korea expert, told CNN: "There are all sorts of cults in South Korea. They [Shincheonji members] are generally regarded as not particularly malign. They hold beliefs that are a long way out of the mainstream and in Pastor Lee there is a real cult of personality. In that context, Pastor Lee's cult of personality isn't one of the most extreme, but it does exist."

The Church of England had also previously issued a warning about splinter groups in the UK in which it suggested the group was a cult.

As South Korea grapples with the outbreak, two patients who have been diagnosed with coronavirus have died in the country, according to the KCDC.

The first patient tested positive for the virus after their death, according to the KCDC on Thursday. On Friday, KCDC director Jung said the victim had a chronic lung disease and had been hospitalized for a long period of time.

Jung also stated that the second patient, identified as a woman born in 1965, was confirmed to have the virus on Friday.

South Korean officials said on Friday that the two cities where the outbreak of the virus had been confirmed would be designated as "special care zones."

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said: "(The government) will carry out special measures by designating the Daegu and Cheongdo areas, which are experiencing difficulties due to a sudden increase in confirmed cases, as 'special care zones.'"

The government also plans to send military medical staff and prepare temporary isolation facilities for those who are unable to isolate themselves.

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