South Korea has arrested the leader of a religious sect linked to the country’s largest coronavirus outbreak.
Lee Man-hee, 88, heads the Shincheonji Church of Jesus. More than 5,000 of its members have been infected, representing 36% of all Covid-19 cases in the country.
Authorities accuse him of hiding information about group members and gatherings from contact tracers.
The church says Mr. Lee was concerned about the privacy of its members, but never withheld information from authorities.
South Korea currently has 14,336 coronavirus cases and 300 deaths.
Mr. Lee was arrested early Saturday, following an investigation. A judge said there were signs that evidence related to the case was being destroyed.
Mr. Lee is also accused of embezzling 5.6 billion won ($ 4.7 million; £ 3.6 million) and organizing unapproved religious events.
In a statement, the Shincheonji Church said Mr. Lee was concerned about “excessive requests” for personal data from members, but never attempted to obstruct the investigation.
“The issuance of an arrest warrant by the court does not mean a verdict of guilty”, he added. “Every effort will be made to uncover the truth in future trials. “
Who is Lee Man-hee?
Lee Man-hee says he is the embodiment of the second coming of Jesus Christ and identifies himself as “the promised pastor” mentioned in the Bible.
He founded the Shincheonji Church in 1984. In Korean, Shincheonji means “new heaven and earth”.
The group, which has 230,000 members, is considered by many to be a sect. Mr. Lee’s supporters believe he will take 144,000 people to heaven with him.
The church says it has more than 20,000 followers outside of South Korea, including China, Japan and parts of Southeast Asia.
The group is known to closely gather its followers during services. Glasses, necklaces and earrings would be prohibited from the services.
Members of the fringe Christian group are believed to have infected each other and then traveled across the country, apparently undetected, in February.
In March, Mr. Lee apologized for the spread of the virus.
“Even if it was not intentional, many people were infected,” he said at the time. “We put in all our efforts, but weren’t able to stop everything. “