SEOUL, South Korea — To his followers, he is a descendant of the historical kings who dominated Korea centuries in the past, “the angel” Jesus despatched for mankind, and the just one and only “counselor” who can interpret the symbols and key codes concealed in the Bible’s Book of Revelation.
To officers and politicians, he is a villain, the chief of a religious cult who is thwarting the government’s attempts to have the exploding coronavirus outbreak in South Korea.
Lee Male-hee, the 88-12 months-outdated enigmatic founder of the Shincheonji church, is now hoping to defend his team, when challenging the accusations in opposition to it.
South Korea has 4,335 conditions of the coronavirus, with at the very least 60 p.c linked to Shincheonji’s department in Daegu, a metropolis in the southeast. As the governing administration scrambles to incorporate the epidemic, Mr. Lee and the church have been blamed for contributing to the spread, by failing to provide a entire record of its customers to the authorities.
In the earlier 7 days, hundreds of church customers have remained incommunicado, baffling health officers making an attempt to track them down for tests. Key cities, together with the funds city of Seoul, have requested nationwide prosecutors to examine Mr. Lee for probable criminal charges, which includes “murder by way of willful negligence.”
On Monday, Mr. Lee, sporting a surgical mask and speaking in a choking voice, reported he was remorseful that so lots of individuals were tied to his church. But he denied the claims that its actions contributed to the epidemic, stating that the church has been cooperating with the governing administration the best as probable.
“I give my term of deep apology to the folks,” Mr. Lee claimed on Monday through a nationally televised information conference, throughout which he knelt and bowed.
His tone marked a shift from the concept he despatched to his church members previous week, in which he blamed the epidemic on “the evil who got jealous of Shincheonji’s speedy development.”
“When evening passes, dawn will arrive,” he reported then.
Mr. Lee has very long courted controversy. He has been dogged by lawsuits, protest rallies and allegations of preaching heresy, splitting aside households, as effectively as likely just after rival church buildings. He has survived them all, commanding a messianic charisma above the 245,000 followers who he says the church has in South Korea and overseas.
Right up until now, Mr. Lee’s Shincheonji has been a single of the speediest-rising religious sects in South Korea. He has used an intense proselytizing method that has unnerved mainstream Christian religions who liken the church to a cult. He has normally staged massive-scale outdoor situations that remind critics of huge propaganda rallies in North Korea.
Like North Korea, the church has its very own calendar, counting the several years from the working day Mr. Lee established it in 1984. It hosts its very own “Olympiad,” filling a stadium with worshipers from all over the world. It options armed service-design and style honor guards, taekwondo exhibitions and other team performances similar to North Korea’s Mass Game titles. Typically dressed in snow white and carrying his trademark hand-held folding admirer, Mr. Lee likes to snap a military services salute to his adoring crowds.
“Shincheonji has been rising rapidly even with the persecutions” from the mainstream Christian church buildings, Mr. Lee said in an job interview with the newspaper Kyeonggi Ilbo final June. “Why? Simply because we have a doctrine. We are not a conventional church.”
Mr. Lee was born on Sept. 15, 1931, in a bad farming family in Cheongdo, a county in close proximity to Daegu. He suggests he began praying with his grandfather at a younger age while he didn’t go to a church. He fought in the Korean War in the 1950s as an army sergeant.
He worked for one more spiritual group considered a cult by mainstream churches ahead of starting up his individual Shincheonji Church of Jesus, Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony in 1984. Shincheonji suggests “new heaven and new earth” in Korean. In his sermons, he guarantees “an stop to the crime- and corruption-ridden entire world and a new era.”
“Shincheonji only utilizes Jesus as a front and what its users worship is Lee Male-hee,” stated Hwang Eui-jong, a Christian pastor who has been combating from groups like Shincheonji.
Because the outbreak, users of Shincheonji have turn into the target of sickness-handle officials functioning versus time to tame the outbreak.
Police detectives and anti-condition officers have been monitoring them as a result of their smartphone locations or credit-card details. They have visited their households, knocking on their doors or seeing from outdoors to see if there ended up signals of existence inside. 1 provincial govt sent an urgent concept to citizens through smartphone messages inquiring them to report Shincheonji members.
If Shincheonji officers took these kinds of a message as a type of “witch searching,” it was also a testimony to the issue condition-regulate officials have confronted. An formal at a federal government well being clinic in Daegu that taken care of coronavirus screening did not expose that he was a church member until eventually he himself analyzed optimistic.
“Many church users have been fearful to appear out and reveal their church users, provided the mind-boggling blaming coming from politicians and news media that called Shincheonji the originator of the virus outbreak,” reported Kim Si-mon, the church’s spokesman.
He explained that church associates have been uncovered to popular discrimination, taunting and even violence since the outbreak. Mr. Kim reported a lot of the undesirable publicity was fueled by the prejudices mainstream churches have made towards Shincheonji.
“Please halt blaming and hating us,” he claimed. “In a place like South Korea that has liberty of religion, do we have to die mainly because we never belong to the set up church? Shincheonji did not make the coronavirus.”
It’s not the initial time that a spiritual sect shunned by mainstream church buildings was related to a national disaster in South Korea. Just after an overloaded ferry sank in 2014, killing extra than 300 people today, South Koreans had been stunned to master that the ferry organization was controlled by a spiritual chief typically condemned as heretical like Mr. Lee.
On Monday, Mr. Lee appeared repentant all over his information convention. But a flash of his regular charisma appeared at the finish when journalists tried out to talk to inquiries at the same time though his critics hurled him insults from the sidelines.
“Be quiet! Get!” he shouted right before his underlings hurried to usher him out. “We are all developed-ups!”