SEOUL, South Korea – The leader of a secret religious sect that was at the center of a coronavirus outbreak in South Korea last year was sentenced on Wednesday to three years in prison for embezzling church funds.
Lee Man-hee, 89, the founder of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, has been acquitted of conspiracy to obstruct health officials’ efforts to fight the virus. Mr. Lee’s sentence has been suspended for four years, which means that he will remain free unless he commits a crime within that time.
The rapid spread of the virus among Church believers in Daegu, a city in the southeast, in February and early March last year briefly made South Korea the home of the world’s largest coronavirus outbreak outside of China. According to the government, a total of 5,213 cases have been found among members of the Church and their contacts.
Prosecutors arrested Mr. Lee in August on charges that he and other church officials obstructed the government’s efforts to combat the epidemic by failing to fully disclose the number of worshipers and their meeting places. Mr. Lee was also accused of embezzling 5.6 billion won, or US $ 5.1 million, from church funds to build a luxurious “Peace Palace” north of Seoul, the capital.
He was also charged with using public facilities for religious activities without permission from local authorities.
Mr. Lee was released on bail last November. On Wednesday, a judge in Suwon District Court, south of Seoul, ruled that failure to provide a full list of worshipers and church institutions did not hamper the government’s disease control efforts.
Mr. Lee’s Church welcomed the acquittal but said he would go to a higher court to try to overturn his convictions on embezzlement and other charges.
During the trial, Mr. Lee had denied all charges against him. In a previous statement, his church said Mr. Lee had never intended to obstruct government efforts to fight the epidemic and urged church members to work with health officials.
However, prosecutors demanded that the court sentence him to five years in prison.
Mr. Lee’s Church received heavy public criticism and apologized to South Koreans in March. Parents who accused the Church of luring and brainwashing their children with its unorthodox teachings have labeled Mr. Lee a “religious deceiver.” The church has dismissed the allegations as unfounded.
At the height of the outbreak, which spread from the church, South Korea was reporting up to 900 new cases per day. However, that outbreak was dwarfed by a new wave of infections that mainly spread to the populous metropolitan area of Seoul in November. The country with around 50 million inhabitants reported a record of 1,240 new cases on Christmas Day.