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Secretive South Korea church under scrutiny over coronavirus

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Secretive South Korea church under scrutiny over coronavirus

Secretive South Korea church under scrutiny over coronavirus

A controversial and secretive religious sect in South Korea is facing the biggest crisis in its 36-year history, after hundreds of its members tested positive for coronavirus.

Joe Davies reports.

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Secretive South Korea church under scrutiny over coronavirus

The Shincheonji church is a controversial, secretive religious sect in South Korea.

And now it's being blamed for a huge rise in the number of coronavirus cases in the country.

The national tally surged past 1,500 on Thursday - and nearly 600 of them have been directly linked to a Shincheonji church in Daegu.

The number of cases spiked since a 61-year-old woman known as "Patient 31" who attended services there tested positive on the 18th of February.

An So-Young quit the religious sect four years ago.

She says she had a gut feeling that Patient 31 might be a member of the church.

(SOUNDBITE) (Korean) FORMER SHINCHEONJI FOLLOWER, AN SO-YOUNG, SAYING: "When the news that they (health authorities) couldn't track the movements of Patient 31 came out, I told my parents that she looks like a Shincheonji follower.

And it turned out that she is.

That's their culture, they have to hide their movements, and that's why I guessed she was with Shincheonji." According to An, new members of the church are forced to leave home and live in dormitories as part of their initiation.

Shincheonji's secretive practices and sometime aggressive recruitment efforts have made it a controversial presence in South Korea.

Many followers break ties with their families - and are allegedly urged to do so if their faith in Shincheonji is under threat from family members.

Doo Song-Ja's daughter joined the church five years ago.

She hasn't heard from her since.

Now she's campaigning with other mothers of missing daughters, urging the president to help save them.

(SOUNDBITE) (Korean) 64-YEAR-OLD MOTHER OF SHINCHEONJI FOLLOWER, DOO SONG-JA, SAYING: "I'm so worried because so many Shincheonji followers are testing positive (for the virus) and there was even a death yesterday.

She is a Shincheonji follower but I don't know where she is, where she sleeps." A petition for Shincheonji churches to be shut down has gathered more than 780,000 signatures in just two days - public anger growing over both its practices and its role in the outbreak of the virus.

The Daegu church linked to the explosion in coronavirus cases in South Korea is now closed for the time being at least.

The eggs thrown at its doors a sign of the sentiment from locals towards it.




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