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South Korean sect leader apologises over coronavirus spread

  • News Desk

    Agence France-Presse

Gapyeong, South Korea   /   Mon, March 2, 2020   /   02:09 pm
South Korean sect leader apologises over coronavirus spread South Korean health officials spray disinfectant in front of the Daegu branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in the southeastern city of Daegu on February 20, 2020 as about 40 new cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus confirmed after they attended same church services. - A cluster of novel coronavirus infections centred on a cult church in the South Korean city of Daegu leaped to 39 cases on February 20, as the country's total jumped for the second successive day. (Photo by - / YONHAP / AFP) / - South Korea OUT / REPUBLIC OF KOREA OUT NO ARCHIVES RESTRICTED TO SUBSCRIPTION USE (AFP/YONHAP)

The leader of a South Korean sect linked to more than half the country's 4,000-plus coronavirus cases apologised Monday for the spread of the disease.

"I would like to offer my sincere apology to the people on behalf of the members," said Shincheonji head Lee Man-hee, 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.

A 61-year-old female member developed a fever on February 10 but attended at least four church services in Daegu -- the country's fourth-largest city with a population of 2.5 million and the centre of the outbreak -- before being diagnosed.

South Korea's case numbers are expected to rise further as authorities carry out checks on more than 260,000 people associated Shincheonji.

Seoul's city government has asked prosecutors to press charges, including murder, against him and 11 other sect leaders for failing to cooperate in containing the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

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.