Update: This story has been updated to reflect the latest number of infections in South Korea.
South Korea reported a surge of 53 newly confirmed coronavirus cases today, bringing the national total to 104. More than a quarter of those are traced to a religious cult.
According to statements from South Korea’s center for disease control and prevention, 28 confirmed cases are linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony. The religious movement, which the government referred to as a “cult” in a statement yesterday, was founded in 1984 and claims to have more than 200,000 adherents globally. Members of the church believe that Shincheonji is a “nation of God… created here on earth as it is on heaven,” and that its founder, Lee Man-hee, is a “promised pastor” who will live forever.
The country’s 31st case is a 61-year-old South Korean woman associated with a branch of Shincheonji in the city of Daegu, about 235 kilometers (150 miles) south of Seoul, according to public health authorities. It’s unclear how she contracted the Covid-19 illness, as she hasn’t travelled abroad recently and isn’t aware of having come into contact with other infected patients, according to officials. Per a government statement, she was hospitalized on Feb. 7 following a car accident, developed a fever three days later, and was confirmed to have tested positive for coronavirus on Feb. 18. None of her family members have shown symptoms, and taxi drivers who were in contact with her are now in self-quarantine, according to a Facebook post by Daegu mayor Kwon Young-jin.
A statement posted on the church’s website confirmed that the 31st patient had attended services in Daegu, where almost all new cases reported today are located. Local media reported that some 1,000 members had attended worship with the 31st patient. The church has since temporarily closed its facilities, moving all worship and meetings online. Daegu is now on alert, and has taken measures including shutting public libraries, suspending kindergarten classes, and postponing major events. A US army base in the city has restricted access and is imposing self-quarantine for any troops who recently attended the local Shincheonji church.
More than 75,000 people have been confirmed infected with the novel coronavirus worldwide, with the vast majority of patients located in China. More than 2,100 people have died from the disease, mostly in China.
Elsewhere in Asia, other places of worship have also been suspended because of the coronavirus outbreak. In Singapore, at least 21 confirmed cases have been linked to a cluster at the the Grace Assembly of God church, out of the country’s 84 confirmed cases thus far. Another three cases are linked to a separate church, the Life Church and Missions Singapore. Some churches in Hong Kong are delivering their services online.