“It’s better to swallow existing churches,” she said to a chorus of amens. “But you must keep this strategy to yourself.”
Mr. Lee has defended the church’s response to the outbreak, and Shincheonji has issued statements through a spokesman repeating that the church was cooperating with the government and demanding an end to “scapegoating.”
Eo Kwang-il, 38, a Shincheonji member, said that because of overwhelming bias against their church, members hid their affiliation and used ruses to win converts. But he said the church never forced members to abandon school or jobs for the sake of proselytizing.
How the church conducts gatherings, however, has drawn scrutiny as a spreader of the disease. Worshipers sit packed tightly on the floor and attend even when sick, former members say.
“We were taught not to be afraid of illness,” said Lee Ho-yeon, who left the church in 2015. A church leader boasted to followers on Feb. 9 that although hundreds of people had died in Wuhan, China, where the outbreak began, no Shincheonji worshipers there became sick, according to the audio file of the sermon released by Yoon Jae-Deok, an expert on religious groups like Shincheonji.
The crowded conditions of Shincheonji churches did make them more vulnerable to contagious diseases, said Hwang Gui-hag, the editor in chief of the Seoul-based Law Times, which specializes in church news.
But he said that in his view, the central and regional governments, caught off-guard by the virus, had found a convenient point of blame in the church. He said mainstream churches had a vested interest in disparaging Shincheonji, as did the “cult hunters” who demonize the church so that families hire them to remove relatives.