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South Korean sect leader apologises over coronavirus spread

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Seoul (AFP)

The leader of a secretive South Korean sect linked to more than half the country's 4,000-plus coronavirus cases apologised Monday for the spread of the disease.

Shincheonji head Lee Man-hee's plea for forgiveness came after Seoul city authorities filed a murder complaint against him for failing to cooperate in containing the epidemic.

South Korea's case numbers -- the largest total anywhere outside China -- are expected to rise further as authorities carry out checks on more than 266,000 people associated with the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, which is often condemned as a cult.

"I would like to offer my sincere apology to the people," said Lee, his voice breaking.

"Although it was not intentional, many people have been infected," the 88-year-old said, twice getting to his knees to bow before reporters in Gapyeong, his head to the floor.

"I seek the forgiveness of the people."

"I am very thankful to the government for its efforts," he added. "I also seek the forgiveness of the government."

Lee is revered by his followers as the "Promised Pastor" who has taken on the mantle of Jesus Christ and will take 144,000 people with him to heaven on the Day of Judgement, which he will usher in within his own lifetime.

A 61-year-old female member developed a fever on February 10 but attended at least four church services in Daegu -- the country's fourth-largest city with a population of 2.5 million and the centre of the outbreak -- before being diagnosed.

At services Shincheonji members sit close together on the floor and pray extensively in what critics say creates an ideal environment to spread viral infections.

Lee -- whose organisation says he has tested negative for the virus -- insisted that the group was "actively cooperating with the government".

"At churches, the leader of the church is like a parent and its members are the children," he said, pausing occasionally to wipe tears from his eyes as protesters shouted abuse.

"What parent would stand by and watch when there is such a scary disease that could even lead to death? Wouldn't they try to fix it?"

Seoul's city government has asked prosecutors to press charges including homicide against Lee and 11 other leaders after the sect was accused of submitting false lists of its members to authorities.

For its part, the sect says members face social stigma and discrimination if their beliefs become publicly known, dissuading some from responding to official inquiries.

Under South Korean law prosecutors can make their own decision on whether to act on complaints filed to them, and Yonhap news agency reported that the Seoul City request had been assigned for investigation.

Seoul mayor Park Won-soon added on his Facebook page: "If they had actively taken early measures, we could have prevented the explosive rise of COVID-19 cases in Daegu and North Gyeongbuk province and the deaths of several people."

South Korea reported 476 new coronavirus cases Monday, taking the total to 4,212, while the death toll rose to 22 with four more people dying, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

Infection numbers have surged in the world's 12th-largest economy in recent days and the country's central bank has warned of a contraction in the first quarter, noting the epidemic will hit both consumption and exports.

Scores of events have been cancelled or postponed over the contagion.

The education ministry said that school and kindergarten breaks, which had already been extended nationwide to next Monday, will be lengthened by a further two weeks.

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