The South Korean religious group at the center of a dramatic spike in coronavirus cases in the country has rejected a storm of criticism over the outbreak.
Roughly half of the more than 600 cases in South Korea are associated with the controversial religious group, leading to 9,300 Shincheonji members being put into self-isolation.
Outside a shuttered building in Seoul that houses offices and places of worship for Shincheonji, a shopkeeper called the group "heretics" in an interview with CNN.
But Kim So-il, a project director at Shincheonji, defended the group, saying it was in "great difficulty" right now.
“It’s unfair that all people rebuke Shincheonji,” he told CNN. “It’s like a 19th century witch-hunt.”
That was the view reflected by a Shincheonji spokesperson in a televised press conference Sunday, who said the religious group's members are the "biggest victims'" of the coronavirus outbreak in South Korea.
"COVID-19 is a disease that originated in China and spread to South Korea," the spokesperson said.
"We are sincerely urging everyone recognize that the Shincheonji Church and its devotees are the biggest victims of COVID-19, and refrain from hate and groundless attack."
The Shincheonji is centered around the personality of its founder and chairman, Lee Man-hee. On a website believed to be the group's official homepage, the group heavily suggests that Lee is the "Promised Pastor" mentioned in the Bible. The passage it highlights suggests that the Promised Pastor is the second coming of Jesus Christ.
Members of the group congregate in a way that puts them in close contact with one another for long periods of time.
Jung Eun-Kyeong, director of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a press briefing on Friday: "(We are) seeing that there is a possibility that the characteristics of many people sitting close together in a very confined space and holding service for more than an hour ... (could have led to) a few who were exposed infecting many (other) infectees."
The group has said that it "deeply regrets" the outbreak which occurred in their branch in the southern city of Daegu.