South Korean church leader acquitted of blocking anti-virus efforts

SEOUL, South Korea – The leader of a secret religious sect who was at the center of a coronavirus outbreak in South Korea last year was sentenced Wednesday to three years in prison for embezzling money from the church.

But Lee Man-hee, 89, the founder of Shincheonji Church of Jesus, was acquitted of conspiracy to hamper the efforts of health authorities to fight the virus.

Mr. Lee’s prison term has been suspended for four years, meaning he will remain free unless he commits a crime within that time.

The rapid spread of the virus among church worshipers in Daegu, a southeastern city, in February and early March last year, briefly made South Korea the focus of the world’s largest coronavirus outbreak. to the world outside of China. A total of 5,213 of the country’s more than 68,000 cases have been found among church members and their contacts, according to government data.

Prosecutors arrested Lee in August on charges that he and other church officials hampered government efforts to deal with the outbreak by not fully disclosing the number of worshipers and their gathering places . Mr. Lee was also accused of embezzling 5.6 billion won, or $ 5.1 million, of Church funds to build a luxurious “peace palace” north of the capital Seoul. and for organizing unauthorized religious events in public facilities. Prosecutors had asked for a five-year prison sentence.

Mr. Lee’s church – which he says has 245,000 followers in South Korea and abroad – has faced intense criticism at home, and he apologized to the South Koreans in March on the number of related cases. But the church has rejected claims that his actions have contributed to the spread of the virus, as well as accusations from relatives that Mr. Lee is a “religious con artist” whom the church has attracted and brainwashed their children with its unorthodox teachings.

At the height of the outbreak spreading from the church, South Korea has reported as many as 900 new cases per day. But that outbreak was eclipsed by a new wave of infections that began to spread mainly in the Seoul metropolitan area in November. The country, which has a population of around 50 million, reported a record 1,240 new cases on Christmas Day.

Mr. Lee, who was released on bail in November, has denied all charges against him during the trial. In a previous statement, his church said Mr. Lee never intended to hinder government efforts to control the outbreak and urged church members to cooperate with health authorities.

A judge at the Suwon District Court, south of Seoul, on Wednesday ruled that failure to provide a full list of church worshipers and facilities did not mean hampering government efforts to fight the disease. .

Mr. Lee’s church welcomed the acquittal, but said he would appeal his conviction on embezzlement and other charges.

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