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[Newsmaker] Gyeonggi authorities seize PCs from Shincheonji to obtain list of members

Police officers guard the entrace to an office used by the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Gwacheon, just south of Seoul, Tuesday. (Yonhap)
Police officers guard the entrace to an office used by the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Gwacheon, just south of Seoul, Tuesday. (Yonhap)


Gyeonggi Provincial authorities on Tuesday seized computers from an annex building of the Christian sect confirmed as a transmission cluster for a novel coronavirus, as part of efforts to track the potential spread of the disease and contain it.

A list of 42,000 followers of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus was secured during a digital forensics investigation, according to the provincial government.

The move came after a 33-year-old resident of Anyang, Gyeonggi Province, tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday after taking part in a service at the Gwacheon headquarters of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus on Feb. 16.

His wife and a 59-year-old man living in Seocho-gu, Seoul, who attended the same service, also tested positive.

Starting on Monday, 353 Shincheonji-related facilities, including churches and training centers, in Gyeonggi Province have been shut down. Their events and gatherings have been prohibited for two weeks.

The provincial government secured some 50 computers after making a forcible entry into the headquarters. Analysis of the computers allowed them to obtain a list of 3,296 church members who attended the service and those who had personal contact with known patients.

Based on the data, the government will run diagnostic tests and impose isolation measures on the church service attendees.

Over half of the 977 confirmed COVID-19 cases -- as of Tuesday afternoon – in the country have been traced to a branch of the shadowy Shincheonji group in the southeastern city of Daegu.

Concerns are growing with the emergence of cases that stemmed from other branches of the religious sect, which has 1,100 churches and annex buildings nationwide.

Gyeonggi Province Gov. Lee Jae-myung said the forcible entry inevitable, as at least two confirmed cases were found to be directly linked to a service that took place in Gwacheon.

“We didn’t have enough time to wait until Shincheonji submits the list as we cannot miss a golden time to prevent mass infections,” he said in a statement posted to his Facebook page.

He also questioned the credibility of the data supplied by Shincheonji prior to the raid, claiming that a man living in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, who tested positive Tuesday after attending a service at the Daegu branch, was not included in the list offered by the sect.

“It is not possible to take complete preventive measures if we only depend on the data provided by Shincheonji,” Lee said.

On Tuesday, Shincheonji released a special letter from its leader Lee Man-hee announcing his decision to disclose the full list of church members to cooperate with the government’s efforts to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Before the announcement, it only released the list of followers belongs to branches of Daegu and neighboring North Gyeongsang Province.

“The Shincheonji Church of Jesus will actively cooperate with the government’s policies to provide a list of Shincheonji and conduct a full investigation,” Lee said in the letter posted on the church’s website.

He told the laity that the government will protect their personal information throughout the process.

(hnpark@heraldcorp.com)
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