Coronavirus epidemic in South Korea may be tied to Shincheonji Church

The Shincheonji Church teaches illness should not prevent the believer from spreading the message of the church.

Workers from a disinfection service company sanitize a street in front of a branch of the Shincheonji Church where a woman known as "Patient 31" attended a service in Daegu, South Korea, February 19, 2020. (photo credit: YONHAP VIA REUTERS)
Workers from a disinfection service company sanitize a street in front of a branch of the Shincheonji Church where a woman known as "Patient 31" attended a service in Daegu, South Korea, February 19, 2020.
(photo credit: YONHAP VIA REUTERS)
The recent outbreak of coronavirus in South Korea may be related to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony thanks to its extreme practices, the New York Times reported on Sunday.
The church is said to instruct believers that they should pray together as they sit closely on the floor in ranks. Members are reportedly instructed not to miss prayer meetings even if they are sick, as doing so is seen as a lack of faith.
“We were taught not to be afraid of illness,” former member Lee Ho-yeon said, according to the report. “We were taught not to care about such worldly things like jobs, ambition or passion. Everything was focused on proselytizing, even when we were sick.”
By last Saturday, over half of the 346 people known at the time to be infected with coronavirus in South Korea were members of the church and people with whom they were in contact with. A further 1,250 church members had reported symptoms indicative of possible infection by the virus.
However, more than 700 known members of the church could not be reached by authorities to be screened.
“Shincheonji members know of their bad image and they usually hide their affiliation from nonchurch members, even from their parents,” said Hwang Eui-jong, a pastor who has researched the church. “No wonder many of them are unreachable. They must be huddled together somewhere, praying that this will eventually go away.”
The number of cases recorded in the country has since risen to 602.
The outbreak has hit Shincheonji’s church in Daegu particularly hard, where a 61-year-old woman known as patient 31 is thought to be the common link between a number of cases.
The day after reporting a sore throat to doctors at Daegu hospital, she attended a church meeting. The following Sunday, despite having stayed in the hospital with a fever, she again left the premises to attend a church meeting. As many as 1000 church members are thought to have been present at the two services.
Doctors are said to have advised her twice during the intervening week to be tested for coronavirus, but she refused, saying she had not been to China. Eventually, the following Monday, she checked in to a government-run clinic where she tested positve.
“Her behavior is not surprising to people familiar with the church,” said Chung Yun-seok, who runs Christian Portal News. “To them, getting sick is a sin because it prevents them from doing God’s work.”
After the case of patient 31 was reported, the church released instructions via social media informing members that they should continue their evangelical work in small groups, and deny their belonging to the church or attending services if asked by the authorities. However, it later claimed these posts were not its official stance, and that the person responsible for them had been disciplined.
Shincheonji claims to have 150,000 members across 12 main congregations plus smaller operations such as cafes used for proselytizing. 
On Friday, the church's founder Lee Man-hee told his followers to “follow the government’s instructions,” avoid gathering, and to take their proselytizing online.
“This disease outbreak is the work of the devil, which is hellbent on stopping the rapid growth of the Shincheonji,” he said in a message.