Church at centre of South Korea’s recent coronavirus cluster claims government fabricating tests

South Korea’s coronavirus fight has been complicated by a political and religious fight between President Moon Jae-in’s administration and some of his critics.

Sarang Jeil Church is the second religious group at the centre of a major coronavirus outbreak in South Korea.

The government accuses the church of obstruction by not providing complete lists of its members and spreading fake news that is hindering anti-virus efforts.

When the first infections were reported among church members on Aug. 12, the government said the group flouted social distancing instructions, with the church’s leader and others attending a massive anti-Moon rally in Seoul on Aug. 15.

Speaking at the rally, Rev. Jun Kwang-hoon said Moon had “terrorised our church with the Wuhan virus”.

At least 739 people affiliated with the church have tested positive for coronavirus so far.

Some Sarang Jeil members say the government is fabricating the test results as part of a plot to persecute them.

Peter Ko, an attorney for Jun, said the when a person identifies themselves as a church member to clinic staff, their results are more likely to come back positive.

“When we go get tested elsewhere and do not mention that we are a member of the congregation, we’d test negative,” he said. “I would say there is a fabrication.”

One of the church’s pastors, Lee Hae-suk, said she was initially told her test was negative, but the next day she received a message saying she had tested positive.

“I can think of no other reason than that this is a plot to kill Sarang Jeil Church by increasing the number of confirmed cases,” she said. When asked who she thinks is behind the plot, she said: “Moon Jae-in.”

Earlier, another controversial religious group, the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, was involved with South Korea’s first major outbreak, accounting for almost a third of the country’s total 16,670 cases.

Its leader was arrested after being accused of hindering the virus response by hiding information about the church’s members and gatherings.