South Korea arrests 88-year-old spiritual leader of Shincheonji Church of Jesus over coronavirus outbreak

South Korea detained the leader of a religious sect linked to the country’s largest coronavirus outbreak.

88-year-old, Lee Man-hee heads the Shincheonji Church of Jesus. Over 5,000 of its members contracted the infection, making up 36% of all Covid-19 cases in the country.

The authorities accuse him of hiding information about the group’s members and gatherings from contact tracers.

The church says Lee was concerned for his members’ privacy, but never hid information from the authorities.

Lee was arrested early on Saturday, following an investigation. The judge said there were signs that evidence related to the case was being destroyed.

Lee is also accused of embezzling US$4.7 million and holding unapproved religious events.

In a statement, the Shincheonji Church said Mr Lee had been concerned about “excessive requests” for personal details of members, but never attempted to obstruct the investigation.

“The court’s issuance of an arrest warrant doesn’t mean a guilty verdict,” it added. “All possible efforts will be made to unveil the truth in the upcoming court trials.”

South Korea currently has 14,336 coronavirus cases, and 300 deaths.

Lee Man-hee claims to be the incarnation of Jesus Christ’s second coming, and identifies 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 a cult by many. Mr Lee’s followers 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 in China, Japan and areas of Southeast Asia.

In March this year the group is believed to have infected one another and then travelled around the country, apparently undetected, in February.

In March, Mr Lee apologised for the virus’s spread.

“Although it was not intentional, many people have been infected,” he said at the time. “We put our utmost efforts, but were unable to prevent it all.”