Church Leader in South Korea Receives Suspended Prison Term After Virus Fallout

SEOUL, South Korea — The chief of a secretive spiritual sect that was on the heart of a coronavirus outbreak in South Korea final yr acquired a three-year jail time period on Wednesday on costs of embezzling church cash.

However Lee Man-hee, 89, the founding father of Shincheonji Church of Jesus, was acquitted on a cost of conspiring to impede the well being authorities’ efforts to combat the virus. Mr. Lee’s jail time period was suspended for 4 years, which signifies that he’ll stay free except he commits a criminal offense inside that point.

The speedy unfold of the virus among the many church’s worshipers in Daegu, a metropolis within the southeast, in February and early March final yr had briefly made South Korea residence to the world’s largest coronavirus outbreak exterior China. A complete of 5,213 instances have been discovered amongst church members and their contacts, in keeping with authorities knowledge.

Prosecutors arrested Mr. Lee in August on costs that he and different church officers had obstructed the federal government’s efforts to combat the epidemic by not totally disclosing the variety of worshipers and their gathering locations. Mr. Lee was additionally accused of embezzling 5.6 billion gained, or $5.1 million, from church funds to construct an expensive “peace palace” north of Seoul, the capital.

He was additionally accused of utilizing public services for spiritual actions with out permission from the native authorities.

Mr. Lee was launched on bail final November. On Wednesday, a choose within the district court docket of Suwon, south of Seoul, dominated {that a} failure to offer a full record of worshipers and church services didn’t quantity to impeding the federal government’s disease-control efforts.

Mr. Lee’s church welcomed the acquittal, however mentioned he would attraction to the next court docket to attempt to reverse his conviction on embezzlement and different costs.

In the course of the trial, Mr. Lee had denied all costs in opposition to him. In an earlier assertion, his church mentioned Mr. Lee by no means meant to hamper the federal government’s efforts to regulate the epidemic, and had urged church members to cooperate with the well being authorities.

However prosecutors demanded that the court docket sentence him to 5 years in jail.

Mr. Lee’s church has confronted intense criticism from the general public, and he apologized to South Koreans in March. Mother and father who accused the church of luring and brainwashing their children with its unorthodox teachings have referred to as Mr. Lee a “spiritual con artist.” The church has dismissed the accusations as groundless.

On the peak of the outbreak spreading from the church, South Korea reported as many as 900 new instances a day. However that outbreak has been eclipsed by a brand new wave of infections that started spreading primarily by means of the populous Seoul metropolitan space in November. The nation, which has a inhabitants of about 50 million individuals, reported a document 1,240 new instances on Christmas Day.

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