(CNN)Illness was never accepted as a valid reason to miss services at the Shincheonji religious group, says former member Duhyen Kim.
This is an organization that took roll call, he says, and everyone had to physically swipe in and out of services with a special card. Any absence was noted and followed up on.
“The culture was, even though you’re sick you come in on Sunday. If you’re so sick you can’t come Sunday, you have to come on Monday or Tuesday — you have to make up for the time,” Kim says. He describes how, when he was a member, followers would sit on the floor during hours-long services “packed together like sardines.”
The religious group — an offshoot of Christianity — is now at the heart of South Korea’s novel coronavirus outbreak, particularly in the city of Daegu.
South Korean authorities believe a large number of cases in the country attended a Shincheonji service or have been in contact with attendees.
The religious group says it is cooperating with local authorities, and has shut down all church services and gatherings.
“We are sanitizing every church and annex buildings all across the nation, including Daegu branch. We will actively participate in disease prevention activity, following the government’s measure,” reads a statement frpm the group.
The religious group also lashed out at its critics.
“The media had been reporting that we are the main culprit in the spread of virus, referring to our ‘unusual service style’ — a reality where we had to hold service on the floor to maximize the number of occupants in our small space,” the statement adds.
But Kim, who still has friends within the group, and other former members have told CNN that attendees are not allowed to wear anything on their faces — even glasses — during prayer time.
“They were forced recently not to wear masks even though the whole corona (virus) outbreak was going on. They said, no, it’s disrespectful to God to have masks on,” Kim says.
Shincheonji has not returned CNN’s calls for comment.
Kim says he joined in 2006 as a 19-year-old student who had just arrived in South Korea to study.
The South African didn’t have a support network and says he was quickly “recruited.”
At first, he says his friends did not reveal they were part of Shincheonji. But after 18 months, they introduced him to a Bible study group, and slowly brought him into their religious world.
“At that time, I was an expat,” he says. “These people became my community, my friends I could rely on, (people) I could go out for dinner, drinks (with).”
Kim’s native English-language skills helped him rise in the organization. By 2011, he says he was the international affairs director and personal interpreter of founder and leader Lee Man-hee. He says his mother-in-law was Lee’s partner.
After spending almost every day with the man revered as a god-like figure within Shincheonji, Kim became disillusioned with the group and in 2017 he left.
Shincheonji Church of Jesus, the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony was established on March 14, 1984, by Lee and is centered around the personality of its founder.
Little is known about his past.
According to the group’s official homepage, Lee was born on September 15, 1931, in Cheongdo, in southern South Korea, and his birthplace gets regular visits from followers. Lee was “deeply religious” from an early age and prayed with his grandfather but had never been to a church.
The website 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.
The group says it has about 245,000 members more than 31,000 of them from overseas.
An internal document from 2017, called the “International Missions Department status report,” provided to CNN by former members, said the group has eight branches in the US, with the LA chapter being the largest with more than 1,000 members, as well as dozens of chapters in China.
“The church of Shincheonji believes Lee Man-hee, their leader, is the second com