Shincheonji leaders facing criminal complaint

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Shincheonji leaders facing criminal complaint

Gyeonggi’s local government on Wednesday filed a criminal police complaint against Lee Man-hee, the leader of the controversial Shincheonji sect, for violating laws on infectious diseases.

According to provincial officials, Lee and five other Shincheonji leaders on Sunday entered and roamed around a facility owned by the church in Gapyeong, Gyeonggi, that had been sealed off by the government to combat the novel coronavirus epidemic.

“Despite being the origin of early coronavirus infections, [Shincheonji] remains uncooperative in disease control efforts,” wrote Gyeonggi Gov. Lee Jae-myung on his Facebook page on Wednesday. “They first showed a hostile attitude toward health authorities, and we have chosen to file a criminal complaint since they now are openly violating health measures.”

The spike in virus infections in Korea starting from late February to March was largely attributed to a mass contagion among Shincheonji followers in Daegu and North Gyeongsang. As of Wednesday, 5,209 - or 50.2 percent - of all 10,384 coronavirus cases in Korea have been linked to Shincheonji.

With the number of infections in the wider capital area continuing to grow, Gyeonggi’s provincial government has been actively monitoring the activities of the sect. On Feb. 24, it issued an administrative order mandating all facilities owned by the church be closed off and suspending all followers’ gatherings until Saturday.

Last week, the Gyeonggi government said it was maintaining the entry ban and ban on gatherings for the sect indefinitely, citing that the church continued to flaunt government ordinances on disease control.

Major Shincheonji landmarks in the province, like its headquarters in Gwacheon and Lee Man-hee’s residences in northern Gyeonggi, were all shut down on government orders, including the site Lee visited on Sunday.

This location is where Shincheonji reportedly plans to build a massive museum to commemorate Lee’s activities. According to Gyeonggi officials, Lee and his five followers entered the grounds at around 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, where they inspected the area and Lee gave orders to plant some trees. Photographs and video footage of the visit has been submitted to the police as evidence, officials said.

The sect, which mainstream Christian groups in Korea say is a cult that uses exploitative practices to lure in members, has been blamed for attempting to tamper with health authorities’ investigations. Lee Man-hee himself faces possible manslaughter charges for not sharing details about its members with health authorities promptly, though the group has denied intentionally withholding information from the government.

Late last month, Seoul’s metropolitan government revoked the church’s corporate license on the grounds that its activities threatened public health. The measure, which deprives the sect of tax reduction privileges on its properties but allows it to retain the status of a religious organization, prompted a strong response from the church, which said it would file a lawsuit against the city.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]

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