Had it been any other week, Ji-yeon Park, a 26-year-old nail artist, would have been at her twice-a-week bible study with her fellow Shincheonji worshippers. Instead, she says, her life has come to a halt as she worries about her church and if she, too, has been infected.
Jiyeon is one of 230,000 members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a doomsday sect at the heart of the Covid-19 outbreak in South Korea, and she says she is scared of being found out about her faith.
Authorities believe a large number of cases are members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus or have been in contact with someone who is. With about 80% of the 1,766 cases connected to the sect, fear and hatred towards the church is on the rise.
But Ji-yeon says blaming the church is unfair. “Our church didn’t invent the virus. This is just an excuse to shift blame. Throughout history, minority groups have always been blamed for bad things happening in society. The same is happening to us.”
Ji-yeon joined the church two years ago, when she first came to Seoul from Geochang, South Kyungsang province, an hour’s drive from Daegu, the epicentre of the South Korea outbreak. Feeling lost in the big city, she says, a colleague’s invitation to join a free acupuncture class came as a pleasant surprise.
“I didn’t know they were Shincheonji at first but they were kind and always there for me. Two of them even cried with me when my boyfriend broke up with me. So it didn’t matter too much when they told me the truth later. Why should it matter when other so-called honest people can be horrible and cruel for no apparent reason?”
Ji-yeon says she has been contacted by her local district public health office and has been advised to be on self-confinement despite not having any symptoms. She says she did not attend the Daegu services earlier this month that authorities believe sparked the spread of the virus via an infected church member, a 61-year-old woman known as “patient 31”.
“We’re being treated like criminals. We had a bad image before and now I think I’d be lynched if passers-by knew I belonged to Shincheonji.”
Those who escaped the church, however, feel differently. Speaking to Korean media, Advent Kim, a former Shincheonji member who now works as a counsellor to help families affected by the sect, says the situation cannot be resolved without drastic action.
“They teach members that it’s OK to lie about their faith just to protect the organisation. How can you call it a religion when they teach lying? Everyone is brainwashed to blindly follow orders. Authorities must somehow get the cult leaders to give the appropriate orders for all members to come out of hiding so they can all get tested before it gets even worse.”
South Korea’s vice-health minister, Kim Gang-lip, said on Thursday that officials had secured the list of 212,000 Shincheonji members and were expected to complete collecting biological samples from 1,300 members of the Daegu branch who were showing symptoms. He said the ministry was trying to obtain from the church a list of about 90,000 members-in-training.
Advent Kim says the church’s lack of cooperation lies at the core of its recruitment method. “They don’t tell newcomers they are Shincheonji at first. Only after they feel that the newcomer is ready to accept them do they come clean. By then, most choose to stay, as did I. Members-in-training most likely don’t know the group they belong to is Shincheonji, thinking they are attending a career or hobby-related group for acupuncture or pet grooming.”
Kim adds that more experienced members are ordered to infiltrate other churches to recruit members. Members are ordered not to tell family about their membership or to use the internet. “They have recruitment competitions and there are fines for members who cannot fill their quota.”
‘People are so unhappy and lonely’
As authorities rush to find the connection between the sect and Wuhan, it has been alleged that the church operated a branch there. A recording has emerged of one of the cult leaders in which he refers to their Wuhan branch. “No Shincheonji member in Wuhan has contracted the virus thanks to their faith,” he says.
After the recording was made public, the sect admitted there were about 300 active members in Wuhan, although there is scepticism about the church’s activities there.
Since the outbreak in Daegu, South Korea has spiralled into a state of national emergency. With 13 dead and 1,766 cases, authorities have advised citizens to wear a mask at all times, but supply is limited. Many companies have told employees to work from home and avoid face-to-face meetings.
The US-South Korea combined forces’ command training was cancelled for the first time due to the spread and the Korean Catholic church announced it would not hold masses until the beginning of March, a first in the country’s 236-year history of Catholicism.
More regions of Korea have stopped accepting flights from Daegu, and as the city suffers a shortage of medical staff, some 500 medical doctors around the country have volunteered to work in the virus-ridden city.
Despite this, Daegu is struggling to keep up with the infection cases, with more than half of those confirmed to be infected with the virus told to stay at home due to a lack of hospital beds.
Young-il Cho, who runs a pharmacy opposite what turned out to be a Shincheonji study centre in Yangjedong, Seoul, says he cannot believe the turn of events in the past few days. “A lot of young people used to go into that building and there was loud wailing day in, day out. I wondered if they were a cult but didn’t expect them to be connected to the virus. What is the point of me selling all these masks here if they’re spreading the virus right across the road?”
Mi-soon Jeong, a server at a nearby restaurant, is more sympathetic. “I don’t condone them but in a way I don’t blame them for joining a cult,” she says as she sprays disinfectant onto tables. “You can’t find good jobs nowadays and people are so unhappy and lonely. It is hard for people.”