Investigators in South Korea are seeking to establish the extent to which 12 executives of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus with a population of 245 thousand members can be held criminally responsible for the rapid spread in the country of COVID-19, the illness that results from the coronavirus.

The leader fancies himself the new “messiah” and – as of Sunday – finds himself under investigation for homicide by wilful negligence. Lee Man-hee, 80, leads the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a secretive religious sect often described as a cult and seen as largely responsible for the propagation of COVID-19 in South Korea.

Authorities want to know whether, due to its unorthodox religious practises and taste for secrecy, the Christian sect has put lives at risk during the coronavirus outbreak for not allowing examinations for its 245 thousand member church.

A woman from the church went to the hospital on February 7 after a minor traffic accident. During that exam, she complained of a pain in her throat. She then returned to hospital a few days later for treatment of a persistent fever.

Doctors twice recommended that she submit to coronavirus screening. Both times, the woman refused. But her health continued to deteriorate and, 10 days later, she could no longer refuse testing; on February 17, doctors examined her more closely and diagnosed a COVID-19 infection. They were never, however, able to establish how she had been exposed to the virus.