The Chinese authorities are screening members of a secretive South Korean Christian sect for the coronavirus that causes Covid-19, according to a researcher who closely tracked the group in China.
The Shincheonji Church of Jesus has been linked to a cluster of cases in its native country and the researcher said the Chinese authorities were investigating some members who have visited South Korea.
Covid-19 has infected more than 81,000 people worldwide and killed more than 2,700. By far the highest number of cases have been in China, but South Korea has also seen more than 1,500 infections, more than any other country.
Two clusters in South Korea have been linked to members of the church, and the South China Morning Post reported yesterday that it had around 200 members in Hubei, the province at the centre of the outbreak.
“[They are screening] not just those in Hubei but members in other parts of the country too … But of the ones that have been screened so far, all have been clear,” said the researcher, who learned about the screening from an official source.
The Post was unable to verify the source of the information independently. It was not immediately clear how many of the estimated 20,000 Chinese Shincheonji members have been tested.
The Shincheonji Church of Jesus has been described by mainstream Christian organisations as a secretive and unorthodox sect.
Former members have said that its 89-year-old founder, Lee Man-hee, has claimed that he is immortal and God’s final chosen shepherd with a similar status to Jesus.
The church also maintains that only it upholds the truth of the Bible while all other churches belong to Satan.
Around half the Covid-19 cases in South Korea have been linked to Shincheonji’s branch in Daegu.
South Korea has reported more than 1,500 confirmed infections and 13 deaths.
Of the new cases reported on Wednesday, 216 were from Daegu city, according to the country’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
The country’s other big cluster of cases is in neighbouring Cheongdo county, and health officials are investigating whether it is linked to a three-day funeral ceremony the church held at a local hospital.
The researcher, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter, said the Chinese investigation was “targeting people who may have links with the funeral held in January and those who visited the country as the outbreak happened”.
With the number of cases expected to rise, South Korean health workers are widening their testing after Shincheonji provided the government with a list of its 212,000 members.
Sources close to senior Shincheonji members in China said the sect has at least 20,000 members in the mainland.
They are mostly in Beijing, Shanghai, Dalian, Changchun and Shenyang.
The sect also has a target of recruiting an additional 30,000 members in China this year, a source said, citing an internal document.
A Shincheonji member in Wuhan, where the epidemic was first reported, said members had been meeting in the city until December, when they realised an unknown disease had emerged.
The church has now suspended its gatherings, but current and former members said its activities – including worship and proselytising – were continuing online.
The mainland Chinese authorities have ordered the suspension of all religious gatherings but some Christian churches, including unofficial ones, are using cyberspace to continue their activities.
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