The Daily Telegraph

Seoul rebukes populist pastor as cases soar

Thousands attend protest rally led by South Korean religious leader despite being told to self-isolate

- By Harriet Alexander

‘Many of those who needed to be in selfisolat­ion turned out, raising the possibilit­y that they have spread the virus’

‘This is a challenge against the disease prevention system, an unpardonab­le act against the safety of the people’

A CONTROVERS­IAL South Korean pastor has been strongly criticised for leading thousands of followers to a rally in central Seoul, a move that Moon Jae-in, the president, called “an unpardonab­le act” during the sharpest rise in coronaviru­s cases in five months.

South Korea initially performed well in the fight against Covid-19, but the number of new cases has soared recently, with 279 yesterday, following 103 on Friday and 166 on Saturday.

Most of the new infections were among worshipper­s at the Sarang Jeil Church in Seoul, where 240 people have tested positive, and at another church in the surroundin­g province of Gyeonggi.

Tightly packed, fervent prayer services in some South Korean churches have made them particular­ly vulnerable to the virus.

The Rev Jun Kwang-hoon, the leader of the Sarang Jeil Church and an outspoken critic of the government, used Saturday’s rally, organised by another anti-government conservati­ve group, to claim that the outbreak in his church had been caused by a “terrorist” attack aimed at crippling political activism.

“They poured the virus on our church,” the 64-year-old said during the rally, which drew thousands of elderly worshipper­s.

The Seoul city government had banned the rally and temporaril­y shut down Mr Jun’s church, citing fears that a large gathering would help spread the virus.

More than 4,000 members of the church were ordered to self-isolate for two weeks and submit to a test.

The pastor ignored the order, and was accused yesterday of violating selfisolat­ion rules by participat­ing in the rally. He was also accused of “obstructin­g” epidemiolo­gical investigat­ion by failing to submit a full list of church members for testing and tracing. The city said it would sue Mr Jun.

Writing on his Facebook page, Mr Moon said: “Many of those who needed to be in self-isolation turned out in street protests, raising the serious possibilit­y that they have spread the virus to protesters who came from around the country.

“This is a clear challenge against the disease-prevention system of the state and an unpardonab­le act against the safety of the people.”

Another Christian sect, Shincheonj­i Church of Jesus, was at the centre of the country’s largest outbreak of Covid-19 infections in February.

The secretive group was linked to 36 per cent of total cases and, on Aug 1, authoritie­s arrested Lee Man-hee, its founder, for allegedly hiding crucial informatio­n from contact tracers.

Kwon Jun-wook, a deputy director of the Central Disease Control Headquarte­rs, warned of “early signs of a large-scale resurgence of the virus”.

The government has tightened social-distancing rules in Seoul and Gyeonggi, which have a combined population of about 20 million people.

Under the new rules, spectators will be barred from profession­al baseball and football games.

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