Seoul, South Korea
AP

South Korean prosecutors arrested the elderly leader of a secretive religious sect Saturday as part of an investigation into allegations that the church hampered the government’s anti-virus response after thousands of worshippers were infected in February and March.

Prosecutors in the central city of Suwaon have been questioning 88-year-old Lee Man-hee, chairman of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, over charges that the church hid some members and under-reported gatherings to avoid broader quarantines.

Lee Man hee2

In this 2nd March file photo, Lee Man-hee, chairman of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, attends at a press conference in Gapyeong, South Korea. South Korean prosecutors have arrested the elderly leader of a secretive religious sect as part of an investigation into allegations the church hampered the government’s anti-coronavirus response after thousands of worshipers were infected in February and March. PICTURE: Kim Ju-sung/Yonhap via AP/File photo.

The Suwon District Court early Saturday granted prosecutors’ request to arrest Lee over concerns that he could temper with evidence.

Lee and his church have steadfastly denied the accusations, saying they're cooperating with health authorities. Its spokesperson, Kim Young-eun, said the church will do its best so that “the truth is clearly proved in court.”

More than 5,200 of the South Korea’s 14,336 COVID-19 cases have been linked to the church so far. Its branch in the southern city of Daegu emerged as the biggest cluster after infections spiked in late February.

Health authorities used an aggressive test-and-quarantine program to contain the outbreak in Daegu and nearby towns by April, but the country has seen a resurgence of the virus in the Seoul metropolitan area since late May. 

South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Saturday reported 31 newly confirmed cases. At least 23 of the, were tied to international arrivals. 

The country recently reported dozens of infections among South Korean constructions airlifted out of virus-ravaged Iraq and crew members of Russia-flagged cargo ships docked in the ports of Busan and Incheon.