The leader of a religious sect at the center of a sudden surge in South Korea’s coronavirus infections knelt and then bowed before a throng of TV cameras and reporters before asking for forgiveness for unintentionally spreading the virus.
In his first public appearance since the outbreak that has claimed 28 lives and infected more than 4,800 people in Korea, leader of the Shincheonji sect, Lee Man-hee, said Monday it was “not the time for casting blame on anyone,” adding that his religious organization was “fully cooperating with health authorities.”
The 88-year-old spoke behind a makeshift desk that had been placed in front of massive wooden doors of a palace-like building, and claimed that government officials denied requests to hold the press conference inside the complex. Lee had to pause sporadically to talk over heckling protesters screaming his name and swearing through loudspeakers nearby.
“We’ve opened up the list of names of our believers and agreed for a full-out investigation,” Lee said. “Our believers of our church are like children; what kind of parent will sit still when such a scary disease that brings death is going around?”
South Korea’s coronavirus infections surged after a woman, dubbed Patient 31, was found to have attended two worship services with at least 1,000 other members of the Shincheonji sect. Since then, the number of cases nationally has spiked, with the majority in the region of Daegu, a city about 150 miles south of Seoul where the church is based. South Korea has launched a manhunt to find other members who may be infected, but the sect’s role in the epidemic has seen it fiercely criticized.
Lee, who wore a white mask and fogged glasses, stood up in the middle of his speech to make his way next to the desk before kneeling and bowing his head to the ground over clasped hands, a significant gesture of contrition in Korean custom.
“I don’t know how this happened, but we will make utmost of efforts, and we are aware that we were wrong,” Lee said. “We thank the government for making efforts when what we had tried to stop the coronavirus spread wasn’t enough.”
Earlier on Monday, South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said about 57 percent of all patients infected with the novel coronavirus were affiliated with the religion that Lee founded. The Seoul Metropolitan Government has formally asked prosecutors to investigate Lee and other sect leaders on charges including murder and negligence for not doing enough to stop the outbreak.
The virus, which emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year, is spreading throughout the world and cutting a swathe through the global economy. After coursing through China and taking hold in parts of Europe, it has infected 100 people in the US and killed six. The World Health Organization is yet to declare it a pandemic.