Thousands of Protestant church members in Seoul have been quarantined, South Korean authorities said Monday as the country battles virus clusters linked to religious groups.
The country's "Trace, Test and Treat" approach has been viewed as a global model for containing the virus.
But over the weekend, the capital and neighboring Gyeonggi Province – home to nearly half of its 51 million residents – banned all religious gatherings and urged residents to avoid unnecessary travel after a string of new cases sparked fears of a big second wave would have.
The government had drafted a special holiday on Monday to boost domestic consumption. But as infections increased in the capital region, Health Minister Park Neung-hoo urged people to stay at home and for residents of Seoul and nearby Gyeonggi Province so as not to avoid visiting other parts of the country for two weeks.
South Korea reported 197 new cases on Monday, a total of 15,515, for the fourth consecutive day of triple-digit gains after several weeks with numbers generally in their 30s and 40s. South Korea reported 279 new cases on Sunday, more than twice as many as on Friday.
Despite the recent coronavirus outbreak in the city and calls to avoid large gatherings, members of pro-US conservative right-wing and religious Christian groups waved flags and slogans during an anti-government rally in central Seoul's Gwanghwamun area on Saturday
The KCDC – South Korea's Centers for Disease Control – said 167 of the new cases were from the capital region. Health workers have struggled to track down infections, but churches have emerged as the main source.
The largest cluster at the moment is centered around the Sarang Jeil Church in Seoul, which is headed by a controversial Conservative pastor who is a leading figure in protests against President Moon Jae-in.
A total of 315 church-related cases have been confirmed so far, officials said Monday, making them one of the largest clusters to date, and around 3,400 members of the ward had been asked to quarantine.
Around one in six Church members tested so far were positive and "required quick testing and isolation," said Deputy Health Secretary Kim Gang-lip.
White tents (center left) are set up in front of Sarang Jeil Church today, which is believed to be at the center of the recent coronavirus outbreak, to prevent people from entering. Outside, the Church attorney is holding a press conference on the Church's latest infection cluster in Seoul
Government officials in protective clothing stand under a white tent to restrict access to Sarang Jeil Church while the church lawyer holds a press conference near the church in Seoul on the recent COVID-19 cluster infection
However, a list of the members made available by the church is "imprecise", which makes the testing and isolation procedure "very difficult".
The initial outbreak of the virus in the south was centered in the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, which is often condemned as a cult and also accused of obstructing investigators.
Sarang Jeil's leader Jun Kwang-hun was among the speakers addressing thousands of right-wing protesters who opposed the center-left Moon government in the heart of Seoul over the weekend, despite the outbreak and demands to avoid large gatherings gathered.
The Ministry of Health and Welfare and the Seoul City Council have filed two separate police complaints against Jun, accusing him of deliberately obstructing efforts to contain the epidemic.
Shincheonji leader – who has been linked to more than 5,000 cases – Lee Man-hee was arrested earlier this month for allegedly providing inaccurate records of church meetings and false lists of his members to health authorities.
On Saturday, a National Liberation Day holiday in both Koreas, thousands of demonstrators took part in street protests against President Moon Jae-in's policies and opposed a ban on rallies in the capital.
Christians wearing face masks while maintaining social distance attend a service on Sunday at Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, South Korea. Some churches have been at the center of the country's recent outbreaks and religious gatherings in Seoul and neighboring Gyeonggi Province have been banned
President Moon said the recent outbreak is the biggest challenge facing COVID-19 since the large group of infections came from the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a mysterious religious sect, six months ago.
On August 1st, South Korean authorities arrested the sect's founder, Lee Man-hee, for allegedly hiding important information from persecutors.
President Moon warned against "harsh and strong measures" against "some churches", calling their behavior an "unforgivable act that threatens public life".
Despite the recent outbreak, South Korea has been cited as an example of how to deal with the coronavirus. The population is larger than that of Spain and the population density is higher than that of the UK, France, Italy, Germany, the US and even China, with far fewer cases and only 305 deaths.
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