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Seoul mayor sues South Korea religious group for ‘murder’ and ‘injury’ over spike in coronavirus cases

People wait in line to buy face masks from a post office near the Daegu branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu on February 27, 2020.

Jung Yeon-je | AFP | Getty Images

The mayor of Seoul has sued key leaders of the Shincheonji religious group at the center of South Korea’s sudden surge in the number of confirmed cases for the new coronavirus. 

Mayor Park Won-soon said on Facebook he was suing the key leaders of Shincheonji “for murder, injury and violation of prevention and management of infectious diseases,” according to a translation from NBC News. 

Park reported 12 leaders to the Seoul Central District Prosecutor’s Office on Sunday.

South Korea has the highest number of infections outside mainland China. On Monday morning, the total number of cases in South Korea stood at 4,212, and 22 had died from the infection. Just two weeks earlier, the number of cases stood at around 30. 

Contributing to the exponential rise in cases was the city of Daegu, and specifically, the secretive religious group called Shincheonji, according to the country’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As of Sunday morning, the group accounted for almost 60% of all cases in the country, with most of them centered in Daegu. 

The flu-live virus, officially named COVID-19 by the World Health Organization last month, has infected over 87,000 globally.

“We can handle the COVID-19 situation as soon as possible only when we forcefully investigate the twelve branch heads of the Shincheonji sect along with Lee Man Hee, the Chairman of the sect,” Park said in his Facebook post on Sunday. Lee is the founder and spiritual leader of Shincheonji Church of Jesus.

“The prosecutors need to carry out a rigorous investigation and make sure it leads to a strict punishment on the Shincheonji leadership that is at the center of this crisis,” Park added in a separate statement posted to the mayor’s office website

The mayor accused Lee and others of evading tests for the virus and for failing to take adequate measures to get members of the group to work with health authorities in preventing transmission of the infection. Park also alleged that the Shincheonji provided false information that obstructed the work of the health authorities.  

The religious group denied allegations that its members hid their attendance at worship service and carried out missionary work in secret.

“The General Assembly Headquarters of Shincheonji Church called for an immediate ban on all meetings, worship gatherings and access to its churches throughout Korea after it was confirmed that a believer in Shincheonji’s Daegu church had been infected with COVID-19 (“Patient 31″) on 18th of Feb,” the group said in a statement. 

Experts have said that economic difficulties in South Korea as a result of the virus outbreak is imminent. 

CNBC’s Chery Kang and NBC’s Stella Kim contributed to this report.