Jesus’ secret Shincheonji Church was at the center of public anger early last year because of a surge in cases attributed to its followers.
The elderly leader of a secret religious sect at the center of an early coronavirus outbreak in South Korea has been found not guilty of hampering the government’s virus prevention efforts.
But a district court ruled on Wednesday that Lee Man-hee was guilty of embezzling billions of won from his organization and receiving a suspended prison sentence.
The often-condemned Shincheonji Church of Jesus was at the center of huge controversy early last year when it emerged that the church accounted for more than half of South Korea’s coronavirus cases.
At the time, the country was experiencing one of the worst early outbreaks of the disease outside of China. It then brought the virus under control through widespread testing, contact tracing and strict quarantine measures.
Shincheonji leader Lee, 89, was arrested in August on charges of giving health officials inaccurate records of church gatherings and false lists of its members.
Last month, prosecutors asked for a five-year prison sentence.
But the Suwon District Court cleared him of violating the infectious disease control law.
Lee apologized in March for the spread of the disease, kneeling twice to bow to reporters with his head on the ground.
“Even though it was not intentional, many people were infected,” he said at the time.
“I seek forgiveness from the people.”
The church also apologized, as more than 3,500 of its members who survived the virus donated blood plasma to help with treatment research.
Lee, who was arrested in August, was convicted on a separate charge of embezzling more than 5.7 billion Korean won ($ 5.2 million) from Shincheonji and submitting bogus requests to organize religious events in public sports facilities.
He was sentenced to three years in prison.
Researchers say the sect proclaims that Lee has put on the mantle of Jesus Christ and will take 144,000 people with him to heaven on Judgment Day.
In February, more than 1.4 million people signed a petition on the South Korean presidential office website calling for its dissolution.
Shincheonji is known to have some 200,000 followers and claimed that its members face social stigma and discrimination if their beliefs become public, dissuading some from responding to official inquiries.
In recent weeks, South Korea has repeatedly recorded more than 1,000 new cases per day – a low by global standards, but its highest figures yet – prompting authorities to increase distancing restrictions social and to intensify testing.