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Government and local church spat intensify, more developments on anti-government rally aftermath

Addition to this post.

Government, conservative pastor in spat after church emerges as mass infection cluster

The spat between a conservative pastor and the government intensified Monday after health authorities and prosecutors sought to put the pastor behind bars for not cooperating in the government’s efforts to contain the novel coronavirus although his church has emerged as the country’s second-largest infection cluster.

Jun Kwang-hoon, head of the Christian Council of Korea and pastor of Sarang Jeil Church in Seongbuk-gu, Seoul, has come under fire for violating the self-isolation regime by attending a mass anti-government rally held at Gwanghwamun Plaza in central Seoul on Saturday. Scores of his church members were also said to have attended the rally.

Speaking to the protesters, he floated a conspiracy theory that a force “poured out virus to the church to block me from joining this rally.”

Seongbuk-gu district office directed the church on Aug. 13 to shut down the facility and prohibit assembly while urging churchgoers to get tested, according to the Ministry of the Interior and Safety.

At least 315 congregants of the 4,000-member Sarang Jeil Church were found to have contracted the virus as of Monday morning. A total of 2,000 people from the church have undergone diagnostic tests. The number has been growing at a fast clip since the first case at the church was detected on Aug. 12.

On Monday, the church pushed back against the government’s moves to press charges against Rev. Jun, arguing that he was not under self-isolation requirements when he took part in the rally.

“Jun had not received any notification. He signed a self-isolation statement notification at 6 p.m. after returning home from the rally on Saturday,” the church said in a press release.

The Interior Ministry immediately refuted the church’s assertions, citing a series of procedures that health authorities and the district office have taken from Aug. 13 including sending text messages to all church members and visitors to get tested.

On Sunday, the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters, a body under the Interior Ministry, and the Seoul Metropolitan Government filed complaints against Rev. Jun to police for violating disease-control laws by spreading false rumors about the epidemic and ignoring a government order to self-isolate.

They also accused Jun of obstructing investigations by failing to provide a full contact list of its members.

On Sunday, Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office requested Seoul Central District Court to cancel the bail granted to Jun for breaching bail conditions.

Rev. Jun was indicted in March on charges of breaking public election law by asking attendees of a rally to support the conservative bloc in the April 15 general elections. He was released in April under a bail agreement that he wouldn’t take part in any rallies or protests which could be found to be illegal or related to the charges he faced.

The church also denied the accusation that it deliberately delayed diagnostic tests of its members.

“There was no such fact at all, but rather it took actions before the authorities,” it said.

As soon as the first case was confirmed, the church affixed a sign to the church that banned entry to the facility and sent out more than five text messages to each member of the congregation to urge them to cooperate with community health centers and not to gather for rallies, the church claimed.

Some local media said that church officials told members to wait a couple of days before getting tested. They said the automatic response message on its official phone number on Saturday had information about the rally’s time and location.

By Park Han-na (hnpark@heraldcorp.com)

S. Korea's local infections at 4-month high, mostly linked to churches

South Korea’s daily locally transmitted COVID-19 cases surged to a four-month high on Friday, mainly due to sporadic outbreaks at churches in the Greater Seoul area, leading the government to consider tightening social distancing rules to contain the coronavirus spread.

Of the country’s 108 new COVID-19 cases reported, 85 cases were locally transmitted, the most since 88 cases were registered on March 31. The total caseload has risen to 14,873, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The government launched a review on raising the level of social distancing (by one notch) to Level 2 in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province,” Vice Health Minister Kim Ganglip said in a briefing Frida

Under the Level 2 social distancing norms, gatherings of 50 or more people indoors and of 100 or more people outdoors are restricted. Public facilities are shut down and high-risk facilities, such as bars, should suspend their business.

The majority of the new local infections reported Friday were from the Seoul Metropolitan Region -- 31 in Seoul and 38 in Gyeonggi Province. Five cases were reported in Busan, three each in North Chungcheong Province and in Incheon.

Korea is in greater danger now as it grapples with sporadic outbreaks with unclear source of infection, the authorities said, compared to May and June when the country saw most COVID-19 cases traced to the cluster of infections at bars and clubs in Seoul’s Itaewon area.

In the past week, several clusters of infections were found simultaneously at churches, restaurants, cafes and traditional markets where unspecified individuals gather, come and go, which makes it harder for the authorities to carry out contact tracing and identify transmission routes.

The transmission routes for 13.7 percent of all cases for the past two weeks are unknown.

Churches continue to be major clusters of infections, with followers gathering in close proximity, not properly wearing masks, singing hymns and sharing meals. Since July 20, a total of 193 cases were traced to seven churches, according to the KCDC.

On Friday, some 60 members of a church in Yongin, Gyeonggi Province, which has some 1,100 members, tested positive for the virus. A 30-something man attending the church tested positive Tuesday, sickening 71 others so far. Some 400 people who attended the worship services earlier this month are being tested for the virus.

From another church in northern Seoul, 14 more members tested positive, raising the number of total related cases to 19. COVID-19 testing is underway on 1,897 people, according to the Seoul metropolitan government.

Two more cases were confirmed in connection with an office in southern Seoul, raising the number of total related cases to 18. The initial patient tested positive on Tuesday.

Seven more people were diagnosed with the virus after a patient, who tested positive on Aug. 12, visited a franchise coffee shop on Aug. 8.

At least 15 employees working at eight Lotteria fast-food chain restaurants were diagnosed with the virus as of Friday, according to the KCDC. Some 19 Lotteria employees gathered for a meeting at an outlet near Gunja Subway Station in eastern Seoul on Aug. 6 and visited two more restaurants that day.

Korea is again being put to test as the country will have a three-day holiday period around Liberation Day, which falls Saturday, as Koreans are expected to gather, move around and go outside more. Large-scale rallies are also planned in central Seoul although the city government has banned such gatherings.

Meanwhile, starting Monday, foreign coronavirus patients who violate infectious disease measures will be required to cover all costs of COVID-19 treatment and their self-quarantine. Foreigners who arrive from overseas after Aug. 24 will also be required to pay for part or all of the bills for the treatment, depending on their nationality, according to the authorities.

This came after Korea, which has treated locals and foreigners for COVID-19 free of charge, recently revised a related law as rising imported cases from overseas put a burden on the local health system.

Of Friday’s 18 imported cases, 11 were identified while the individuals were under mandatory self-quarantine in Korea, while seven were detected during the quarantine screening process at the border. Twelve of the newly diagnosed people were foreign nationals.

By country, four were from Asia -- two from Iraq, one from the Philippines and one from Kazakhstan. Nine were from the United States, one was from the United Kingdom, two from Ghana, one from Algeria and one from Ethiopia.

So far, 13,863 people, or 93.21 percent, have been released from quarantine upon making full recovery, up 46 from a day earlier. Some 705 people are receiving medical treatment under quarantine. Fourteen people remain in serious or critical condition.

The number of deaths stays unchanged at 305, with the overall fatality rate at 2.05 percent -- 2.38 percent for men and 1.77 percent for women -- as of Friday. The fatality rate is 24.96 percent for those in their 80s or over and 9.26 percent for those in their 70s.

The country has carried out 1,665,084 tests since Jan. 3, with 20,132 people awaiting results as of Friday.

By Ock Hyun-ju (laeticia.ock@heraldcorp.com)

Pastor Jun tested positive for COVID-19

A conservative pastor who leads a Christian church in Seoul that has become the country’s second-largest mass infection cluster tested positive for COVID-19, health authorities said Monday.

Jun Kwang-hoon, head of the Christian Council of Korea and pastor of Sarang Jeil Church in Seongbuk-gu, Seoul, has come under fire for attending an anti-government rally on Saturday while he was under self-isolation orders.

Over 2,000 church members were undergoing tests following the confirmation of the first case at the church on Aug. 12.

“Jun needs to be treated in an isolation ward at a hospital. People who have come in close contact (with him) at the rally should be isolated and get tested,” a health authority said.

The details of when and where he underwent the test have not yet been confirmed.

Some 315 members of Sarang Jeil Church were confirmed to have contracted the virus as of Monday at noon.

By Park Han-na (hnpark@heraldcorp.com)

Seoul church under fire for mass infections, uncooperative response to virus tests

New coronavirus infections linked to a church in northern Seoul continued to surge on Monday, not only causing concerns over additional cases among its members but also public backlash against the church and its leader against their uncooperative response.

Cases traced to Sarang Jeil Church in the northern ward of Seongbuk reached 319 as of noon, up 70 cases from the previous day, according to the Central Disease Control Headquarters.

With the latest figure, the church has emerged as the country's second-biggest virus cluster following 5,214 cases associated with Shincheonji, a fringe religious sect that was deemed accountable for mass infections in the southeastern city of Daegu earlier this year.

Despite repeated warnings from the government, members of the church, led by conservative pastor Jun Kwang-hoon, attended a mass Liberation Day rally in central Seoul on Saturday.

Jun himself has tested positive, health authorities said, urging people who attended the rally to be placed under quarantine and tested. It was immediately not known when Jun went through the screening.

Health authorities voiced concern that the number of virus cases tied to the church may further rise as thousands of elderly participants shouted slogans and were in close contact with one another, exposing them to infection risks.

"Of the 4,000 churchgoers whom authorities have identified as of midnight, 3,400 have been placed in quarantine and 2,000 have been screened. Of the total, 312 have tested positive, which translates to a high positive rate of 16.1 percent and calls for swift testing and quarantine," Vice Health Minister Kim Ganglip said in a regular press briefing.

Kim urged people who attended the mass rally to visit nearby screening centers to be tested.

"Since the list (of churchgoers) is inaccurate, there are difficulties in tracking down every church member and placing them under quarantine, and there is a considerable number of churchgoers who have not been tested," Kim said. "Those who show respiratory symptoms, such as fever and coughing, after attending the Seoul rally should immediately visit a screening center to be tested."

In addition to church-linked cases, health authorities warned of chain transmissions spreading at other facilities outside of the greater Seoul area.

"Epidemiological studies on religious facilities showed that infections that traced to religious gatherings are spreading to call centers, child care centers and nursing hospitals, including those outside the capital area," Jeong Eun-kyeong, head of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a briefing.

Public anger over the church and its leader Jun has also mounted, with more than 200,000 people signing an online petition asking the pastor to be detained.

The online petition, first posted on Aug. 15, demands that Jun, who was released on bail, be again detained for "harming society's safety under the mask of religion."

The author criticized how Jun has "wasted" the country's efforts to end the new coronavirus and showed no sign of regretting his action or worrying about the health of churchgoers.

On Sunday, prosecutors asked a local court to revoke the bail granted to Jun. He was indicted in March over allegations of violating the election law and was released the following month on the condition that he does not take part in any rallies related to the pending case.

The health ministry and the Seoul city government have filed a criminal complaint against Jun for breaking the Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act. Jun broke self-isolation measures and disturbed anti-infection efforts by submitting an inaccurate list of churchgoers, according to the city.

Source: The Korea Herald (1, 2, 3, 4)
Tags: political news, social issues
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