Feb. 27 (UPI) -- A South Korean civic group is suing Shincheonji, the secretive religious group in the country that is being widely blamed for the massive outbreak of the new strain of coronavirus.
The National Shincheonji Victims Coalition said Thursday outside the Supreme Prosecutors' Office in Seoul they are filing a lawsuit against Lee Man-hee, 88, the founder of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, on charges of embezzlement and for his violation of South Korea's Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act, Yonhap reported.
The case, which is to be assigned to the prosecutors' office in the city of Suwon, Gyeonggi Province, comes at a time when local critics of the church, sometimes referred to as a cult, is being held responsible for about half of all COVID-19 cases in Korea, where 1,766 cases and 13 deaths have been reported.
According to the South Korean victims coalition, Shincheonji reported lower-than-actual numbers, when the government requested a complete list of members after hundreds of people were infected in the city of Daegu.
Congregants have said they were not allowed to keep their masks on during services.
South Korean plaintiffs say the church's disclosure of a list of about 210,000 members is incomplete. Citing "Doomsday Office," a YouTube channel, the coalition said Shincheonji has 239,353 members and another 70,000 people waiting for admission into the church.
Shincheonji has 12 branches in South Korea that symbolize "12 tribes." Each group is named after a disciple of Jesus, according to South Korean press reports.
On Thursday the coalition said Lee had embezzled $8.25 million of real estate from Kim Nam-hee, a former church member and chairwoman of Mannam Volunteer Association. The coalition claimed Kim was Lee's former mistress.
Speculation is rising among South Korean government officials the church is not disclosing its full list of members. Lee Jae-myung, governor of Gyeonggi Province, said the list is short of 2,000 people, according to government estimates, Maeil Business reported Thursday.