South Korean Cult Leader Faces Murder Investigation Over Church's Role In Coronavirus Outbreak

The leader of the Christian "doomsday cult" at the center of the outbreak in the South Korean city of Daegu is now facing a murder investigation as the country's death toll from COVID-19 hits 21, the BBC reports. The push for the investigation comes as public fury toward the church has exploded thanks to its role in sparking the Daegu outbreak.

City officials in Seoul have asked prosecutors to charge Lee Man-hee, the messianic founder of the Shincheonji Church, along with 11 other church leaders, with murder after a member of the church became South Korea's biggest "super spreader", infecting dozens of others and kicking off the country's outbreak in earnest just as public health officials were beginning to suspect that the virus was fizzling out.

The 61-year-old woman attended multiple church services because she believed she was only suffering from a bad cold, having not left the country recently. The woman also reportedly made frequent trips to Seoul. She initially refused to be taken to the hospital to be tested, though reports claim she had visited early in her illness, before it was apparent that she may have been infected with the virus.

Somehow, doctors didn't catch the virus the first time she visited the hospital.

South Korea has reported 3,730 cases and 21 deaths, the biggest outbreak outside mainland China. More than half of the patients are members of Lee's Shincheonji Church. It's believed that church members infected one another after leaders urged members not to report symptoms.

Officially, all 12 church leaders have been charged with homicide, causing harm and violating the Infectious Disease and Control Act.

All 230,000 members of the church have been interviewed, and nearly 9,000 have shown symptoms of infection. The government plans to test every member for the virus. Church founder Lee, who claims to be Jesus Christ returned to earth, is awaiting the results of a test to see if he has the virus. Shincheonji means "new heaven and earth" and the group was founded by Lee in 1984. It has members across Asia, including in Wuhan. The church claims to have more than 20,000 followers outside South Korea.

The government has shuttered all Shincheonji churches across South Korea. Additionally, Roman Catholic churches, major Protestant groups and even the Buddhists have cancelled church or religious gatherings.