GWACHEON, South Korea - Stigma and discrimination over their beliefs are preventing members of the secretive religious group at the center of South Korea's coronavirus outbreak from co-operating with emergency checks and quarantine efforts, a top representative told AFP.
Officials are trying to track down more than 266,000 members and trainees of Shincheonji, with around 60 percent of South Korea's 4,000-plus coronavirus cases linked to the organization.
Authorities want any members who have come into contact with infected patients -- whether or not they show symptoms -- to enter self-quarantine.
Seoul city officials have also filed a complaint to prosecutors against 12 leaders of the sect, accusing them of murder charges and further offences linked to failure to cooperate in containing the virus's spread.
The church, known in full as the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony, is often condemned as a cult and faces mounting public criticism over the outbreak.
Many members have not responded to health officials, acknowledged Shincheonji's director of international missions Kim Shin-chang.
"It is possible that our members are not completely forthcoming with the authorities on their movements out of fear their Shincheonji affiliation could be exposed," he said.
"Social hatred and discrimination against our members is so pervasive that many fear losing their jobs or fueling conflict among family members if their faith is revealed."
According to reports, more than 1,000 people associated with Shincheonji have not answered survey calls.
"We have urged our members to tell the authorities everything," said Kim -- but he added that doing so was a "personal decision".
Shincheonji was founded in 1984 by Lee Man-hee, who it refers to as the "Promised Pastor", and says he has taken on the mantle of Jesus Christ.
He will usher in the Day of Judgement during his lifetime, it says -- he is now 88 -- and take 144,000 people with him to become immortal high priests in heaven.
With more members than places available, Kim said, who will be chosen is "in the hands of God".
"We believe there is only one Promised Pastor," said Kim, 36, a born-again Christian until he joined Shincheonji 18 years ago, adding that Lee "exercises positive energy that affects the whole world".
At services Shincheonji members are forbidden to wear glasses, necklaces or earrings in what Kim said is a "display of respect to God", and sit close together on the floor.
The outbreak among its members began with a 61-year-old woman. She developed a fever on February 10 but attended at least four church services in Daegu -- the country's fourth-largest city and epicenter of its outbreak -- before being diagnosed.
Around 3,000 Shincheonji members were at each of the Daegu services she attended, Kim told AFP.
In a message to his followers, Lee has called the outbreak the "work of the devil" intended to "thwart the growth of Shincheonji".
"But we are the sons of God," he added. "We will triumph over this challenge."
Shincheonji has 12 branches in South Korea that it calls the "12 Tribes," each named after one of Jesus's disciples, and is so successful it was able to mobilize thousands of followers to hold North Korean-style mass displays at Seoul's Jamsil Olympic Stadium in 2012, home to the 1988 Games.
But Kim says its members face "social stigma and hatred", and there are no signs proclaiming the presence of its headquarters at the nondescript six-storey building in Gwacheon, south of Seoul, where he spoke to AFP.
Above a giant 30-seat conference table inside the property an illustration shows a dove descending from heaven amid beams of light onto an outsize Korea dominating a world map.
Dozens of awards line the walls, among them a certificate of national merit for founder Lee from ousted president Park Geun-hye -- which entitles him to be buried in the country's national cemetery.
Kim denied that Shincheonji has political connections, but pictures have emerged of the founder with Park and with another former conservative president Lee Myung-bak, and their party -- now renamed United Future -- has shied away from criticizing Shincheonji over the outbreak.
© Agence France-Presse