Asia-Pacific

On hands and knees, leader of church at centre of South Korea's coronavirus outbreak apologises

Lee Man-hee, a leader of Shincheonji Church of Jesus, bows during the press conference in Gapyeong, South Korea, Monday, March 2, 2020 Source: AAP

The leader of the religious sect at the centre of South Korea's coronavirus outbreak has got onto his hands and knees to apologise to the nation.

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

Shincheonji head Lee Man-hee's plea for forgiveness came after Seoul city authorities filed a murder complaint against him for failing to cooperate in containing the epidemic. 

South Korea's case numbers - the largest total anywhere outside China - are expected to rise further as authorities carry out checks on more than 266,000 people associated with the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, which is often condemned as a cult.

"I would like to offer my sincere apology to the people," said Lee, his voice breaking.

"Although it was not intentional, many people have been infected," the 88-year-old said, twice bowing his head to the floor before reporters in Gapyeong. 

"I seek the forgiveness of the people."

"I am very thankful to the government for its efforts," he added. "I also seek the forgiveness of the government."

Mr Lee is revered by his followers as the "Promised Pastor" who has taken on the mantle of Jesus Christ and will take 144,000 people with him to heaven on the Day of Judgement, which he will usher in within his own lifetime.

A 61-year-old female member developed a fever on 10 February but attended at least four 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.

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At worship Shincheonji members sit close together on the floor and pray extensively in what critics say creates an ideal environment to spread viral infections.

Mr Lee - whose organisation says he has tested negative for the virus - insisted that the group was "actively cooperating with the government". 

"At churches, the leader of the church is like a parent and its members are the children," he said, pausing occasionally to wipe tears from his eyes as protesters shouted abuse. 

"What parent would stand by and watch when there is such a scary disease that could even lead to death? Wouldn't they try to fix it?"

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