Following reports that a strange Christian cult might be behind the outbreak in Daegu that kickstarted South Korea's COVID-19 crisis, readers around the world have been curious to learn more details about the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, the small but surprisingly extensive church that follows a man named Lee Man-hee who claims to be the second coming of Jesus Christ.
Americans will recognize this as a similar concept to the Mormon theology. In South Korea, it's one of several high-profile Christian cults with a doomsday-oriented philosophy (the leader of the Shincheonji will allegedly take thousands of followers with him to heaven when the world ends).
But in China, a cult like this is extremely illegal. Yet, somehow, in a state that's constitutionally athiest, cults like this survive and sometimes flourish as it's one of the few options that ordinary people have to do something genuinely subversive.
Churches like Shincheonji survive in a sort of tense standoff with the government, with scrutiny coming in waves. Typically, any kind of high profile attention would be bad for the church because it would rouse the authorities. In which case, the story that we're about to share will likely be very, very bad for the church. But unfortunately for them the cat is already out of the bag.
he South China Morning Post has learned that the Shincheonji Church of Jesus has a branch in Wuhan, the Chinese city at the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak that is rocking the world right now.
And the paper has it on good authority that the church's ~200 members in the city, most of whom are now in quarantine outside Wuhan, continued meeting even after the outbreak started to pick up steam.
One alleged member, who spoke under condition of anonymity, said in the beginning, nobody took the virus seriously - because authorities said it wasn't serious.
"Rumours about a virus began to circulate in November but no one took them seriously," said one member, a 28-year-old kindergarten teacher.
"I was in Wuhan in December when our church suspended all gatherings as soon as we learned about [the coronavirus]," said the woman, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.
As of Tuesday evening in the US, there were 977 confirmed cases in South Korea, the highest number outside China, as well as 11 deaths. Of the 84 new cases reported on Tuesday, more than half were reported in Daegu.
A pastor in Hubei province who spoke with SCMP said that Shincheonji church members were especially dedicated, and probably continued their missions to recruit during the outbreak.
Another alleged member of the church, identified only as a kingergarten teacher in Wuhan, said she was sure the church in Wuhan had nothing to do with the outbreaks in South Korea.
The Wuhan kindergarten teacher said she was confident that the recent mass outbreaks in South Korea were not linked to Shincheonji church members from the city.
"I don’t think the virus came from us because none of our brothers and sisters in Wuhan have been infected. I don’t know about members in other places but at least we are clean. None of us have reported sick," she said.
"There are so many Chinese travelling to South Korea, it’s quite unfair to pin [the disease] on us."
However, she can't prove this.
She sidestepped questions on whether church members had travelled from Wuhan to South Korea after the outbreak.
A spokesman for the church told SCMP that the group has had troubles with the Chinese authorities before, and that they would do anything to avoid any undue scrutiny connected to the virus, which they stressed had nothing to do with the church.
The teacher said that in 2018 the Wuhan group’s "holy temple" in Hankou district had been raided by police "who branded us a cult," but members continued to worship in small groups.
"We are aware of all the negative reporting out there after the outbreak in South Korea, but we do not want to defend ourselves in public because that will create trouble with the government," she said. "We just want to get through the crisis first."
We wonder if Chinese authorities will see things the same way?