Controversial Leader of South Korean Church Acquitted of Blocking Government Efforts to Stop Spread of Coronavirus

Lee Man-hee, leader of Shincheonji Church of Jesus, leaving a detention center in Suwon, South Korea, in November. (Credit…Hong Ki-Won/Yonhap, via Associated Press)

The leader of a secretive religious sect that was at the center of a coronavirus outbreak in South Korea last year received a three-year prison term on Wednesday on charges including embezzling church money.

But Lee Man-hee, 89, the founder of Shincheonji Church of Jesus, was acquitted on a charge of conspiring to impede the health authorities’ efforts to fight the virus.

Mr. Lee’s prison term was suspended for four years, which means that he will remain free unless he commits a crime within that time.

The rapid spread of the virus among the church’s worshipers in Daegu, a city in the southeast, in February and early March last year had briefly made South Korea home to the world’s largest coronavirus outbreak outside 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 Mr. Lee in August on charges that he and other church officials had obstructed the government’s efforts to fight the epidemic 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, from church funds to build a luxurious “peace palace” north of Seoul, the capital, and of holding unauthorized religious events at public facilities. Prosecutors had sought a five-year prison term.

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SOURCE: The New York Times, Choe Sang-Hun

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