A conservative pastor who leads the church in Seoul that has become the country’s second-largest mass infection cluster tested positive for COVID-19, a Seoul district office said Monday.
According to the Seongbuk District Office, Jun Kwang-hoon, pastor of Sarang Jeil Church in Seongbuk-gu, Seoul, and a vocal critic of President Moon Jae-in, was confirmed with the virus amid a growing criticism for the church’s breach of virus protection rules and uncooperative response to antivirus measures.
The Christian pastor was on the hot seat after attending a mass anti-government rally held at Gwanghwamun Plaza in central Seoul on Saturday, along with scores of his church members, which authorities claimed was in violation of isolation orders.
“Jun needs to be treated in an isolation ward at a hospital. People who have come in close contact (with him) at the rally should be isolated and get tested,” a health authority said.
The Seoul Metropolitan Government found that Jun had tested positive through a report from a hospital in Gwanak-gu, where he underwent the diagnostic test.
His appearance at the rally came as the number of infection cases has been growing at a fast clip since the first case at the church was detected on Wednesday.
At least 319 congregants of the 4,000-member Sarang Jeil Church were found to have contracted the virus as of Monday at noon. A total of 2,000 people from the church have undergone diagnostic tests.
Alarmed by the pastor’s reckless behavior that undermines the government’s efforts to contain COVID-19 and his uncooperative response for epidemiological investigations, health authorities and prosecutors sought to put the pastor behind bars.
On Monday, the church pushed back against the government’s moves to press charges against the Rev. Jun, arguing he was not under self-isolation requirements when he took part in the rally.
Attorneys for Jun sued acting Seoul Mayor Seo Jung-hyup and Health Minister Park Neung-hoo for including the Rev. Jun on the list for self-isolation groundlessly and for purportedly misleading the public as if the church had hindered virus control measures.
“Jun had not received any notification. He signed a self-isolation statement notification at 6 p.m. after returning home from the rally on Saturday,” the church said in a press release.
The Interior Ministry immediately refuted the church’s assertions, citing a series of procedures that health authorities and the district office have taken from Thursday, including sending text messages to all church members and visitors to get tested.
On Sunday, the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters, a body under the Interior Ministry, and the Seoul Metropolitan Government filed complaints against Jun to police for violating disease-control laws by spreading false rumors about the epidemic and ignoring a government order to self-isolate.
They also accused Jun of obstructing investigations by failing to provide a full contact list of church members.
On Sunday, the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office requested the Seoul Central District Court cancel the bail granted to Jun for breaching bail conditions.
Jun was indicted in March on charges of breaking public election law by asking attendees of a rally to support the conservative bloc in the April 15 general elections. He was released in April under a bail agreement that he would not take part in any rallies or protests that could be found to be illegal or related to the charges he faced.
The church also denied the accusation that it deliberately delayed diagnostic tests of its members.
“There was no such fact at all, but rather it took actions before the authorities,” the church said.
As soon as the first case was confirmed, the church affixed a sign that banned entry to the facility and sent out more than five text messages to each member of the congregation to urge them to cooperate with community health centers and not to gather for rallies, the church claimed.
Some local media outlets said that church officials told members to wait a couple of days before getting tested. They said the automatic response message on its official phone number on Saturday had information about the rally’s time and location.
By Park Han-na (firstname.lastname@example.org