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(LEAD) S. Korea's surge in virus cases tied to church stokes fears over religious services

National 18:02 February 20, 2020

(ATTN: UPDATES with numbers in paras 2-3)

SEOUL, Feb. 20 (Yonhap) -- With a number of coronavirus infections confirmed to be linked to a church in the southeastern city of Daegu, fears over going to crowded religious services are growing across the country.

South Korea reported a total of 104 patients infected with the COVID-19 virus as of Thursday afternoon, with a combined 73 new cases confirmed on Wednesday and Thursday.

Out of the 73 new cases, 42 were directly or indirectly from the Daegu branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony, commonly known as Shincheonji. It is a minor Christian sect established by South Korean Lee Man-hee in 1984.

Quarantine officials disinfect the Daegu branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony, on Feb. 20, 2020. (Yonhap)

The new infections were believed to be linked to one of its followers, known as the 31st patient, a 61-year-old woman who tested positive for the contagious virus earlier this week.

She had reportedly attended a couple of church services before and after she felt the symptoms of the coronavirus infection.

Preliminary results of a survey conducted by the city government showed that around 90 of some 1,000 people who were reportedly at the church with the patient reported symptoms of the virus.

A former member of the Shincheonji church assumed that Shincheonji's service practices may have amplified the spread of the coronavirus as all participants sit close together on their knees and sing songs with their arms around each others' shoulders during services.

It also takes about 15 minutes for hundreds of people to move downstairs in a cramped staircase in the church's nine-story building, according to the former member.

The health authorities said they have secured a list of more than 1,000 members of the Shincheonji Daegu church and asked them to be self-quarantined for a while. They are now seeking to identify another 8,000 church members from the organization.

Consequently, South Korean religious communities have been seeking preventive measures as there have been growing fears about religious events in large churches and temples that can become a focal point of infections.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Daegu has suspended all Masses held by churches, institutions and schools in the diocese for two weeks until March 5.

It is the first time that a Catholic diocese has decided not to hold Masses since the first outbreak was reported in South Korea on Jan. 20.

A church in central Seoul was closed for about two weeks earlier this month as one of its believers was confirmed to be infected with the coronavirus.

However, few Protestant and Catholic churches or Buddhist temples have actually rescheduled or reduced their services or events despite the rapid spread of the virus.

They only offer sanitizers or masks to service participants and visitors, while some provide livestreamed services for people who cannot attend.

Some criticized the intransigent religious communities for adhering to services that bring large numbers of people to one place amid the outbreak of the highly contagious virus.

"I don't want to oppose the opinion that the Sunday service is essential," Shin Sung-wook, a professor at Asia United Theological University, said in a contribution to Kookmin Daily. "But I want to point out one thing. Does a church have to be a brick-and-mortar building?"

But others claim that it will be alright if people remain clean and sanitary before attending services.


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