As the coronavirus spreads around the globe, infecting tens thousands and shutting down entire countries, there have been stories of both hardship and human solidarity. However, one story that has so-far flown under many radars is the role of an obscure South Korean Christian sect in spreading the virus. The exact role of the cult in spreading the contagion is still being debated in Korea, with authorities contending that cultists may have deliberately spread the virus throughout the Asian country.
The Shincheonji Church of Jesus or Shincheonji, Church of Jesus, the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony (SCJ) to give the group its full name, is an apocalyptic and messianic Christian cult based in South Korea with an estimated 300,000 followers. The group believes that their founder Lee Man-hee is the returned Jesus Christ, with only Lee being able to truly transcribe the bible into its real meaning. The doomsday cult further believes that Lee will take 144,000 of his followers to Heaven with him upon the Day of Judgment.
The name Shinchonji is derived from the biblical Book of Revelation and translates from Korean as “new heaven and earth.”
“They see themselves as the embodiment of the one true Christianity, poised for salvation when the moment of final judgment arrives. Everyone else will be denied forgiveness and destroyed, according to the group’s doctrine.”Matthew Bell, Public Radio International
Mainstream Christian churches in South Korea, where 27% of the population is Christian, have condemned the church. The Presbyterian Church has stated that Lee’s views are “heretical” and “anti-Christian.”
The 31st person to contract the coronavirus in South Korea was a member of Shincheonji cult’s Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony in Daegu and is considered a so-called super-spreader, that being an individual who transmits the infection to far more people than an average case of infection. The patient was believed to be one of the main spreaders of the virus in Daegu, with 70 of South Korea’s first 100 patients located in the city.
The person in question had not undertaken any foreign travel, but importantly the cult has a branch in Wuhan, China, the location where the disease was first identified. 12 members of the Wuhan branch were connected to the Daegu outbreak with around 200 Chinese members of the cult regularly gathering for prayer sessions in Wuhan.
Members of Shincheonji have claimed that their role on Earth is not only to witness the end of days but to actively engage in bringing that about. They are instructed to embrace disease and not wear face masks and since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis in South Korea many have refused to be tested for the virus, going into hiding and refusing to cooperate with the South Korean government.
“Shincheonji teaches illness is a sin, encouraging its followers to suffer through diseases [and] to attend services in which they sit closely together, breathing in spittle as they repeatedly amen in unison.”S. Nathan Park, Foreign Policy
Lee has stated that the COVID-19 virus is “the evil who got jealous of Shincheonji’s rapid growth” and that the apocalypse “is close” while officials from cities across the country have asked prosecutors to investigate Lee and Shincheonji for potential criminal charges stemming from their actions, including “murder through willful negligence.” Authorities contend that the group deliberately infected one another in Daegu before fanning out around the country.
Shincheonji has branches and links across the globe, with the cult being accused of “infiltrating” other churches worldwide to recruit new members. 230,000 members of the group have been tested for the coronavirus, with 9,000 showing signs of infection. Alarmingly, many of these 9,000 had undertaken extensive foreign travel in recent weeks, including to holy sites in Israel and Palestine.
In 2016, the Church of England issued a warning about Shincheonji, highlighting an affiliate of the group by the name of Parachristo. Parachristo is a registered charity who runs Bible study courses, operating throughout England “for the benefit of mankind” and to “strengthen the commitment of members of the religion” and “enlighten” others.
The group has been accused of recruiting members for Shincheonji from the CofE and other churches through recruiters known as “harvest reapers”.
“After the friendship is established they might invite you to a Bible study in Canary Wharf. Over time they begin to advocate beliefs that amount to control and deception. A number of members of London churches have been pulled into this cult and gradually they are encouraged to cut all ties with friends and family.”Rev. John Peters, rector of St Mary’s London
The Shincheonji Church has denied being a cult or responsible for the outbreak of cases in Daegu or across South Korea, stating that their lack of cooperation stems from fear of the state and of persecution.