• Reuters, AFP-JIJI


South Korean authorities arrested Saturday the founder of a secretive Christian sect at the center of the country’s largest outbreak of COVID-19 infections for allegedly hiding 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 percent of South Korea’s total cases.

Prosecutors allege the 89-year-old conspired with other sect leaders to withhold information from authorities during the peak of the outbreak among his more than 200,000 followers.

Lee, who has described the novel coronavirus as the “devil’s deed” to stop the sect’s growth, allegedly hid details on members and their meeting places as authorities tried to trace infection routes in February, Yonhap news agency reported.

Lee is also suspected of embezzling about 5.6 billion won ($4.7 million) in church funds, including about 5 billion won with which he allegedly used to build a retreat, Yonhap said.

The sect said in a statement that Lee was concerned about government demands 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 prosecution official could not be reached outside of office hours.

In March, Lee apologized for the spread of the disease.

“I would like to offer my sincere apology to the people on behalf of the members,” he said, his voice breaking.

The 88-year-old twice got down on his knees to bow before reporters in Gapyeong, his head to the floor.

“Although it was not intentional, many people have been infected,” he said.

“We put our utmost efforts but were unable to prevent it all. I seek the forgiveness of the people.”

“I am very thankful to the government for its efforts. I also seek the forgiveness of the government.”

Lee is revered by his followers as the “Promised Pastor” who will take 144,000 people with him to heaven on the Day of Judgement, and his group is often condemned as a cult.

At the time, Lee insisted that the group was “actively cooperating with the government.”

“We will do our best and not spare human and material support,” he added, pausing occasionally to wipe tears from his eyes as protesters shouted abuse.

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