A member of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in China’s Wuhan, the epicentre of the deadly coronavirus outbreak, said the group suspended meetings in the city in December and rejected claims it was a catalyst for the spread of the virus in South Korea, where the church was founded. The member, a 28-year-old kindergarten teacher who uses the social media name Angel, said she had not heard of other Shincheonji followers in Wuhan coming down with the disease, which causes a type of pneumonia known as Covid-19. She said she was in touch with other members online. “I don’t know about [Shincheonji churches] in other Chinese cities, but we have been following the isolation measures from the government,” she said in a telephone interview. Exclusive: Secretive South Korean church linked to outbreak held meetings in Wuhan until December The group’s alleged role in spreading the infection has focused attention on its unconventional beliefs, regarded as heretical by mainstream churches, and generated public anger along with a petition for it to be shut down. There is speculation Shincheonji members travelling from Wuhan brought the virus into South Korea. South Korea has reported a surge in coronavirus infections second only to China, with an early cluster centred in Daegu, about 300km (186 miles) southeast of Seoul. Those cases were linked to a so-called super spreader, a 61-year-old female Shincheonji member who attended two meetings in the city, according to the Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. As of Tuesday, South Korea had reported 5,186 confirmed infections and 28 fatalities from Covid-19. South Korean medical authorities have linked as many as half the infections in the country to Shincheonji followers, who meet in congregations in houses and halls that may have helped facilitate the spread of Covid-19. The infection was first reported in Wuhan, capital of the central Chinese province of Hubei, late last year. On Monday, the group’s founder Lee Man-hee, 88, apologised in a press conference for the group’s role in the spread of the coronavirus. “We put our utmost efforts but were unable to prevent it all, I seek the forgiveness of the people,” said Lee, who founded the church in 1984 and is regarded as the second coming of Jesus Christ by his followers. The group did not respond to two email requests from the South China Morning Post for comment on its alleged role in the spread of the virus and details on its religious beliefs and practices. The Wuhan member Angel argued that many Chinese travelled to South Korea and not all of them were Shincheonji followers. However, South Korea’s Ministry of Justice on Saturday said 42 Shincheonji members had entered the country from Wuhan over the past eight months, all but one of them South Korean. In total, 3,600 Shincheonji followers entered South Korea from China between July and February 27, according to the ministry. More than 1.2 million South Koreans have signed an online petition calling for the church to be disbanded as the epidemic brought the public’s attention to its alleged deceitful recruitment practices and pyramid scheme-style proselytising methods. Tark Ji-il, an expert in cults at the Busan Presbyterian University in Gimhae, South Korea, said mounting concerns about the church had prompted calls for an investigation into the relationship between its members in China and South Korea. “Shincheonji keeps telling lies to protect its organisation and undercover members who are hiding and working in regular churches, which has made the prevention of an epidemic more difficult,” he said. The church was classified as one of three Korean Christian New Religious Movements (NRM) in a 2019 study by David Kim at the Australian National University and Bang Won-il at Seoul National University. It has about 210,000 members worldwide and expanded overseas in recent years, with China a primary target given its proximity and large Korean population, according to leaked church documents. Shincheonji, or Xin Tiandi in Mandarin, translates as “new heaven and earth”, though its full name is Shincheonji Church of Jesus, the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony. While China is the church’s largest overseas base, with at least 20,000 members, it is also active in the United States , South Africa and Singapore . On Friday, Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs said it was looking to ban the activities of Shincheonji’s unregistered chapter in the country. While the church has not been officially declared an illegal organisation in China, scholars and mainstream churches consider it a heretic sect. According to Zhendao – a Chinese online platform researching fringe religious groups, which said it had spoken to about 500 former and current Shincheonji members – the group became active in the world’s most populous country about 20 years ago, promoted by migrant workers returning home from South Korea. More organised missionary work began about a decade later. Since then, about 20,000 Chinese have become “holy disciples” of the church after completing a five-stage course and passing various examinations and interviews. The process takes about a year and believers must demonstrate their ability to bring in new members and preach the sect’s teachings. According to a leaked internal document, the sect had about 100,000 “graduates” around the world last year and plans to recruit another 100,000 this year, with China accounting for about a third of the new members. The group is most active in cities like Dalian, Changchun and Shenyang in northeast China, as well as major metropolises such as Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. When Shincheonji set up its Wuhan branch in 2018, it had about 230 members, but that figure is thought to have grown to 350, according to a Zhendao researcher. “Shincheonji might not be the biggest in terms of its membership but it has grown very fast compared with other cults,” said the researcher, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue. The platform frequently received messages from Shincheonji members who wanted to leave, he said. Lee is seen as immortal and the “ultimate shepherd chosen by God”, the researcher said. Believers must proselytise to compete for 144,000 positions as a high priest – to inherit immortality and become kings on Earth like Lee. Each “holy disciple” is required to convert at least one believer every year. Anyone who fails to do so is required to pay up 1.1 million Korean won (US$920) as an offering to make up for the lost headcount, according to former Shincheonji members cited by the researcher. “They target urban Chinese who are educated, church-goers and university students by infiltrating local churches and campuses. Its rapid growth is driven by the spiritual pyramid scheme it operates on, as believers are proselytising around the clock to compete for the high priesthood,” he said. Bill Zhang, a 33-year-old former senior member of Shincheonji’s Shanghai chapter, said he was taught that “Shincheonji upholds the only biblical truth and all the other churches belong to Satan”. Weekly gatherings at the main “holy temple” in Shanghai were attended by about 300 people every Wednesday and Sunday at a venue on Huangxing Road in Yangpu district, he said. The city had about 1,500 to 2,000 Shincheonji members who would meet at various venues before their gatherings were moved online, Zhang said. Yang Fenggang, a sociology professor and founding director of the Centre on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University in the United States, said in countries like China where religious freedom was not respected, non-mainstream religions and those that preached “weird religious practices” were bound to grow rapidly. “I think there is no necessary link between Shincheonji and coronavirus spread in South Korea. It is accidental that this large religious group happened to have some infected people who infected others through religious gatherings or individual interactions,” Yang said. “There are many megachurches in South Korea, some are huge, with hundreds of thousands of members. Any of these evangelical or Pentecostal megachurches could have had such an accident.” How to protect yourself against Covid-19 disease He added that many people had a social, psychological and spiritual need for religion and fringe groups operated in societies that restricted religious expression as well as those where religious freedom was guaranteed. Angel, the member from Wuhan, said local authorities had raided the place she attended for meetings in the city’s Hankou district in 2018. But smaller groups continued to meet up until December last year, when the coronavirus outbreak happened, she said. Ye En, a Chinese minister who has researched the Shincheonji Church, said the group was seeking to expand overseas after growth in South Korea had slowed. “Growth in South Korea stagnates mainly because of Korea’s high social awareness of cults. And the health of [founder] Lee Man-hee has begun to worsen,” she said. “Going overseas is its only way to survive and justify its legitimacy, and maintain the loyalty among its members.” Angel said despite the controversy and accusations against Shincheonji her faith had not been shaken. “I’m saddened to see there are so many bad things said about us,” she said. “It is unfortunate that we are now known in such a way, but it doesn’t bother me because at least everyone in the world has heard the name Shincheonji.” Purchase the China AI Report 2020 brought to you by SCMP Research and enjoy a 20% discount (original price US$400). 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