Coronavirus: South Korean Shincheonji sect leader arrested

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People watch a TV broadcasting a news report on a news conference held by Lee Man-hee, founder of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony, in Seoul, South Korea, March 2, 2020Image source, Reuters
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Lee Man-hee leads a church group with over 230,000 members

South Korea has arrested the leader of a religious sect linked to the country's largest coronavirus outbreak.

Lee Man-hee, 88, heads the Shincheonji Church of Jesus. More than 5,000 of its members became infected, making up 36% of all Covid-19 cases in the country.

The authorities accuse him of hiding information about the group's members and gatherings from contact tracers.

The church says Mr Lee was concerned for his members' privacy, but never hid information from the authorities.

South Korea currently has 14,336 coronavirus cases, and 300 deaths.

Mr Lee was arrested early on Saturday, following an investigation. A judge said there were signs that evidence related to the case was being destroyed.

Mr Lee is also accused of embezzling 5.6bn won ($4.7m; £3.6m) and holding unapproved religious events.

In a statement, the Shincheonji Church said Mr Lee had been concerned about "excessive requests" for personal details of members, but never attempted to obstruct the investigation.

"The court's issuance of an arrest warrant doesn't mean a guilty verdict," it added. "All possible efforts will be made to unveil the truth in the upcoming court trials."

Who is Lee Man-hee?

Lee Man-hee founded the Shincheonji Church in 1984. In Korean, Shincheonji means "new heaven and earth".

The group, which has 230,000 members, is considered a cult by many. Mr Lee identifies as "the promised pastor" mentioned in the Bible, and his followers believe he will take 144,000 people to heaven with him after Christ's Second Coming.

The church says it has more than 20,000 followers outside of South Korea including in China, Japan and areas of Southeast Asia.

The group is known for packing its followers tightly together during services. Glasses, necklaces and earrings are reportedly banned from services.

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'We're often persecuted': Spokesman for virus-hit S Korean church defends secrecy (March 2020)

Members of the fringe Christian group are believed to have infected one another and then travelled around the country, apparently undetected, in February.

In March, Mr Lee apologised for the virus's spread.

"Although it was not intentional, many people have been infected," he said at the time. "We put our utmost efforts, but were unable to prevent it all."