S.Korea pastor tests positive amid virus spike at his church

SEOUL, South Korea —
A conservative South Korean pastor who has been a bitter critic of the country’s president has tested positive for the coronavirus, health authorities said Monday, two days after he participated in an anti-government rally in Seoul that drew thousands.

More than 300 virus cases have been linked to the Rev. Jun Kwang-hun’s huge church in northern Seoul, which has emerged as a major cluster of infections amid growing fears of a massive outbreak in the greater capital region.

Officials are concerned that the virus’s spread could worsen after thousands of demonstrators, including Jun and members of his Sarang Jeil Church, marched in downtown Seoul on Saturday despite pleas from officials to stay home.

Health Ministry official Seong Yeon-il said a coronavirus test for Jun came out positive on Monday, but couldn’t immediately confirm whether he was exhibiting any symptoms.

South Korea reported 197 new cases of the virus on Monday, the fourth straight day of triple-digit increases. Most of the new cases in the past few days have come from the densely populated Seoul metropolitan area, home to about half of the country’s 51 million people.

Churches have been a constant source of infections, with many failing to require worshipers to wear masks, or allowing them to sing in choirs or eat together.

Health workers have so far linked 319 infections to Jun’s church after completing tests on about 2,000 of its 4,000 members. Police are pursuing some 700 church members who remain out of contact.

“The rate of positive tests (among church members) has so far been high, at 16.1%, so the situation requires quick testing and isolation,” Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip said during a virus briefing. He urged anyone who participated in the weekend protest to come forward for testing if they experience fever or other symptoms.

Jeong Eun-kyeong, director of South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said there’s concern that the outbreak at the church could spread nationwide through its members’ activities, and health workers are tracing the contacts of the church’s virus carriers.

“We believe we are in the early stage of a major outbreak,” she said.

President Moon Jae-in’s government has strengthened social distancing restrictions in the Seoul metropolitan area — a move it had resisted for months out of economic concerns — and urged residents to avoid visiting other parts of the country for two weeks.

Jun’s church has become South Korea’s second-biggest virus cluster, behind a branch of the secretive Shincheonji Church of Jesus in the southeastern city of Daegu that was tied to more than 5,000 cases following a surge of infections in the region in late February and March.

The country managed to stabilize the outbreak in Daegu and nearby areas by April after concentrating public health resources and personnel nationwide. Health workers were able to quickly ramp up testing and aggressively trace contacts by extensively using cellphone location data and credit-card records, allowing the country to weather the outbreak without major lockdowns.

But the resurgence of the virus in the greater capital area — which has 10 times more people than Daegu — has been a rude awakening for a country that had been eager to tout its gains against the virus.

While it had been easier for health workers to contain the outbreak in the Daegu region, where infections were mostly tied to the Shincheonji church, they are now struggling to track transmissions and predict infection routes in the Seoul area, where clusters have been popping up from churches, restaurants, schools and other places.

Moon’s government is pressing charges against Jun for allegedly disrupting disease-control efforts by ignoring orders to self-isolate, discouraging worshipers from getting tested and under-reporting the church’s membership to avoid broader quarantines.

Jun’s lawyer, Kang Yeon-jae, denied the accusations during a news conference Monday, insisting that he only received self-isolation orders after returning home from Saturday’s rally.

During Saturday’s protest, Jun, who is known for provocative speeches that are often filled with bizarre claims, said the outbreak at his church was a result of an attack, accusing an unspecified opponent of “pouring” the virus onto the church. The protesters, who sporadically clashed with police, shouted slogans accusing Moon of policy failures, corruption and kowtowing to North Korea.

There’s a possibility that Jun could be arrested for the second time this year, with prosecutors asking a Seoul court to revoke his bail.

Jun was indicted in March on charges of violating election laws ahead of April’s parliamentary elections by allegedly asking participants at his rallies to vote against Moon’s party, which would be illegal because the official campaigning period hadn’t yet started. Jun’s bail was granted on condition that he doesn’t take part in rallies that could be related to his pending case.

Shincheonji’s 88-year-old chairman, Lee Man-hee, was arrested earlier this month over charges that the church hid some members and under-reported gatherings. Lee and his church have steadfastly denied the accusations, saying they’re cooperating with health authorities.