SEOUL — A religious sect whose leader claims he is an angel of Jesus has become the biggest cluster of coronavirus infections in South Korea, which now leads the world in cases of COVID-19 disease outside of China.
President Moon Jae-in put his country on its highest alert for infectious diseases, ordering officials to take “unprecedented, powerful” steps to fight a soaring viral outbreak tallying almost 1,000 cases and 10 deaths as of February 25, mostly linked to a single congregation and a hospital.
Globally, more than 80,000 people have been infected in 37 countries, and more than 2,700 have died.
More than 400 of those infected have been directly linked to a single house of worship, a Daegu branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus—viewed as a cult movement by mainstream Korean Christian organizations—where a woman in her 60s attended two services before testing positive for the virus. Nationwide, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) attributes 501 of 977 cases to Shincheonji members.
Officials are also investigating a possible link between churchgoers and the spike in infections at the Cheongdo hospital, where more than 100 people have been infected so far, mostly patients at a mental illness ward.
Health officials were screening some 9,300 church followers and said that 1,261 of them have exhibited cough and other symptoms.
Among them, four had traveled abroad in recent months, including one to China, although that trip came in early January and was not near Hubei.
More than 1,000 churches and other facilities operated by Shincheonji, which claims 200,000 followers in South Korea, have been closed, and members have been told to instead watch services on YouTube. The sect’s …
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