South Korean Church Leader Acquitted of Blocking Antivirus Efforts

SEOUL, South Korea — The leader of a secretive religious sect that was at the center of a coronavirus outbreak in South Korea last year received a three-year prison term on Wednesday on charges including embezzling church money.

But Lee Man-hee, 89, the founder of Shincheonji Church of Jesus, was acquitted on a charge of conspiring to impede the health authorities’ efforts to fight the virus.

Mr. Lee’s prison term was 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 the church’s worshipers in Daegu, a city in the southeast, in February and early March last year had briefly made South Korea home to the world’s largest coronavirus outbreak outside China. A total of 5,213 of the country’s more than 68,000 cases have been found among church members and their contacts, according to government data.

Prosecutors arrested Mr. Lee in August on charges that he and other church officials had obstructed the government’s efforts to fight the epidemic by not fully disclosing the number of worshipers and their gathering places. Mr. Lee was also accused of embezzling 5.6 billion won, or $5.1 million, from church funds to build a luxurious “peace palace” north of Seoul, the capital, and of holding unauthorized religious events at public facilities. Prosecutors had sought a five-year prison term.

Mr. Lee’s church — which he says has 245,000 followers in South Korea and abroad — has faced intense criticism at home, and he apologized to South Koreans in March over the number of cases tied to it. But the church has dismissed claims that its actions contributed to the spread of the virus, as well as accusations from parents that Mr. Lee is a “religious con artist” whose church has lured and brainwashed their children with its unorthodox teachings.

At the peak of the outbreak spreading from the church, South Korea reported as many as 900 new cases a day. But that outbreak has been eclipsed by a new wave of infections that began spreading mainly through the populous Seoul metropolitan area in November. The country, which has a population of about 50 million people, reported a record 1,240 new cases on Christmas Day.

Mr. Lee, who was released on bail in November, denied all charges against him during the trial. In an earlier statement, his church said Mr. Lee never intended to hamper the government’s efforts to control the epidemic, and had urged church members to cooperate with the health authorities.

On Wednesday, a judge in the district court of Suwon, south of Seoul, ruled that a failure to provide a full list of worshipers and church facilities did not amount to impeding the government’s disease-control efforts.

Mr. Lee’s church welcomed the acquittal, but said he would appeal his conviction on embezzlement and other charges.

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