SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean authorities on Saturday arrested the founder of a secret Christian sect at the center of the country’s largest outbreak of COVID-19 infections for allegedly withholding crucial information from contact tracers and other offenses.
Lee Man-hee is the powerful head of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, which is linked to more than 5,200 coronavirus infections, or 36% of the total cases in South Korea.
Prosecutors allege the 89-year-old conspired with other cult leaders to withhold information from authorities during the peak of the epidemic among his more than 200,000 followers.
Lee, who described the novel coronavirus as “the act of the devil” to stop the cult’s growth, is said to have withheld details of the members and their hangouts as authorities tried to trace the routes of the infection in February, Yonhap News Agency reported.
Lee is also believed to have embezzled about 5.6 billion won ($ 4.7 million) from Church funds, including about 5 billion won that he allegedly used to build a retreat, Yonhap said. .
The cult said in a statement that Lee was concerned about the government’s requests for members’ personal information, but never tried to hide anything.
Lee was arrested immediately after a court in Suwon District, south of Seoul, approved the warrant.
A public prosecutor could not be reached outside of office hours.
(1 $ = 1193,0000 wons)
Reporting by Joyce Lee, additional reporting by Sangmi Cha; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Stephen Coates
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