[KOREA DAILY POST=Reporter Sohn JiAe] "We haven't started the coronavirus. We're just part of the public and a victim of the virus."
The Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a controversial Christian sect in Korea, called for the public to avoid making criticism against the group, in a televised statement on Feb.28 at its official website.
The religious group is at the center of the domestic spread of the novel coronavirus, also called the COVID-19, with most of the nation's confirmed cases coming from its members.
"The witch hunt of the church has reached its peak," said a Shincheonji spokesman, calling the backlash a "witch hunt." "All persecution and violence against the church members are driving them to their death. Please stop hurling hatred and accusations at us."
Mentioning that Korea is a nation with the freedom of movement, the spokesperson said, "Just because Shincheonji is not an established church, should we deserve to die?"
The spokesperson refuted the claims that the church has failed to provide a full list of its followers, saying, "The church is fully cooperating with the health authorities. As we take the crisis seriously and we prioritize the health and safety of the public and our members, the church has provided the government with precise documents."
He also condemned the latest filing of a complaint against the church for violating the infectious prevention law, as well as other charges including embezzlement and breach of trust, as "schemes carried out by the anti-Shincheonji groups."
The spokesperson then asked the public to stop denouncing the group as a heretical sect and the press to stop spreading groundless rumors and fake news.
In the meantime, he deeply apologized for the fact that some people got infected after contacting worshippers who had hidden their affiliation to the church. However he defended why the followers had to do that way as saying, "They might have been afraid of disclosing their membership as many politicians and the press are viewing Shincheonji as an epicenter of many infections at home."
The spokesperson wrapped up by saying that, "Officials from the church headquarters and branches across the country are collaborating with local governments to reach worshippers who are currently out of contact. Shincheonji vows to make all-out efforts to collaborate with the health and local authorities in order to eliminate the coronavirus."
In the statement, the Shincheonji group announced that it has submitted the entire list of its 245,605 followers -- 212,324 at home and 33,281 abroad --, as well as information on the addresses of its affiliated facilities across the country. It also released the list of its entire trainees which amount to 65,127 with 54,176 at home and 10,951 abroad.
The public, however, reacted with outrage and anger following the church's public statement. Many people say that they expected the group to show its sincere apologies for the crisis but all they got was its excuse to shift blame.