March 3, 2020 / 1:34 AM / a month ago

South Korea sect leader tests negative for coronavirus as 600 new cases reported

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korean health authorities said on Tuesday the leader of a religious sect has tested negative for coronavirus, after he was taken to a “drive-through” test site late on Monday amid scrutiny over how his church became the center of the outbreak.

Lee Man-hee, founder of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony, does a deep bow during a news conference at its facility in Gapyeong, South Korea, March 2, 2020. Yonhap via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Lee Man-hee, who founded and heads the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, apologized on Monday and called the epidemic a “great calamity” but refused to be tested by public authorities until a local governor threatened to drag him by force to be tested.

A member of a branch of the church, known as Patient 31, was the first of a wave of infections to hit the country in recent weeks that has grown to 4,812 cases as of Tuesday. The church’s suspected role in the outbreak has caused public anger.

South Korea on Tuesday reported 600 new coronavirus cases and three more deaths from the virus, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).

The outbreak is the largest outside of China, with most of them centered in the city of Daegu, where a branch of the Shincheonji church is based, and many of the cases following the 31st patient had ties to the congregation there.

Lee was taken late on Monday to one of the many test sites set up around the country where people can remain in their vehicles while getting samples taken, according to Mayor Kim Jong-cheon of the city of Gwacheon, where the church’s headquarters is located.

The test result came back negative, an official at province of Gyeonggi said, asking not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Shincheonji Church headquarters told Reuters they also found out about Lee’s test results from local media and had no additional comment.

The church and Lee himself have come under intense scrutiny and growing anger, and local politicians have reported them for prosecution, even as the church offered its 31,000 known followers and “trainees” to be tested for the virus.

The church has said it was itself a victim of the epidemic and the public held “misunderstanding” about its nature.

After Lee spoke at a news conference on Monday, Governor Lee Jae-myung of Gyeonggi Province, which surrounds Seoul, said he was about to take the police into the compound where the religious leader was staying.

“If you don’t accept to get tested, I will not only ask for an investigation, but also immediately arrest and hand you over to the police. This is the last warning,” the governor said in a post on his Facebook page.

He later reported the religious leader had left for testing.

Reporting by Sangmi Cha and Ju-min Park; Editing by Jack Kim and Lincoln Feast.

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