SEOUL/GAPYEONG, South Korea (Reuters) - The founder of the church at the center of South Korea’s coronavirus outbreak apologized on Monday after one of its members tested positive for the virus and infected many others, calling the epidemic a “great calamity”.
South Korea reported 599 new cases on Monday, taking its national tally to 4,335. There have been 26 deaths.
A member of a branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, known as Patient 31, was the first of a wave of infections to hit the country in recent weeks. The church’s suspected role in the outbreak has caused significant public anger.
Lee Man-hee, a self-proclaimed messiah who founded and heads the church, said it tried to prevent the spread of the virus among its members.
“We did our best but were not able to stop the spread of the virus,” Lee told a news conference outside a church facility in Gapyeong, northeast of Seoul.
“I’m really grateful, but at the same time asking forgiveness. I never thought this would happen, even in my dreams,” he told reporters, bowing low twice in a traditional sign of humility and regret.
Several protesters shouted slurs at the reclusive leader, who spoke a day after the Seoul city government asked prosecutors to begin a murder investigation into him.
Seoul said the church was liable for its refusal to cooperate with efforts to stop the disease.
The secretive church faces unprecedented scrutiny from authorities and the public, with all of its 310,000 known followers and “trainees” being tested for the virus.
A church spokesman showed documents saying Lee tested negative for the virus.
Lee said many people had “misunderstandings” about the church, but did not elaborate.
The church issued a statement late on Sunday saying it was complying with government measures and reiterating calls for an end to “stigmatization, hatred and slander” against its followers.
“Our priority is to cooperate with authorities to combat the coronavirus as soon as possible,” a church official told reporters after the news conference.
Tensions simmered ahead of the briefing outside the fortress-like venue, dubbed the Palace of Peace, which was guarded by hundreds of police officers.
The church had initially sought to hold the event inside the compound, known as a training institute for its members, but local authorities rejected the plan citing virus concerns.
A note was posted on the gate of the compound saying it had been sealed off on Feb. 24. There was also a “beware the lion” sign.
Lee Yeon-woo, 54, held a tearful vigil outside, saying she had not heard from her daughter since she joined the church six years ago.
Some former church members told Reuters that many young believers were forced to leave home and live in dormitories near the church as part of initiation, breaking ties with their families.
“Shincheonji destroys families and separates children from their parents,” said Lee Yeon-woo. “I can’t sleep at night thinking my daughter might have been infected and is groaning with pain in seclusion.”
Government officials warned of a “critical moment” in early March in South Korea’s battle with the largest virus outbreak outside China, urging South Koreans to minimize travel and avoid gatherings.
The education ministry said it will postpone the start of all schools’ new semester by two weeks to March 23.
“Two weeks are essential for the coronavirus outbreak to ease,” minister Yoo Eun-hae told a briefing.
Of the new 464 cases reported earlier on Monday by the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC), 377 were from the southeastern city of Daegu, home to a Shincheonji branch where Patient 31 had attended services.
KCDC said some members of the Shincheonji church in January visited the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the disease emerged late last year, though it was investigating to determine whether that played a role in the outbreak.
A church official said their own survey showed no one had gone to Wuhan since December, though there were 357 followers there.
Reporting by Hyonhee Shin in Seoul and Ju-min Park in Gapyeong; Writing by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman, Gerry Doyle and Mike Collett-White