South Korea pastor tests positive amid virus spike at church

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In this April 20, 2020, photo, Sarang Jeil Church pastor Jun Kwang-hun speaks outside a detention center in Uiwang, South Korea. Jun who has been a bitter critic of the country's president has tested positive for the coronavirus health authorities said Monday, Aug. 17, two days after he participated in an anti-government rally in Seoul that drew thousands. (Ko Jun-beom/Newsis via AP)

SEOUL – A conservative South Korean pastor who has been a bitter critic of the country's president has tested positive for the coronavirus, health authorities said Monday, two days after he participated in an anti-government protest in Seoul that drew thousands.

More than 300 virus cases have been linked to the Rev. Jun Kwang-hun's huge church in northern Seoul, which has emerged as a major cluster of infections amid growing fears of a massive outbreak in the greater capital region.

Officials are concerned that the virus’s spread could worsen after thousands of demonstrators, including Jun and members of his Sarang Jeil Church, marched in downtown Seoul on Saturday despite pleas from officials to stay home.

Jang Shi-hwa, a disease control expert in Seoul's southern Gwangak district, said Jun was tested Monday morning at an area hospital, which later reported to her office that he had tested positive but did not exhibit any symptoms. Jun was seen smiling and talking on his cellphone, with his mask pulled down his chin, as he boarded an ambulance that took him to a different hospital in Seoul for isolated treatment.

South Korea reported 197 new cases of the virus on Monday, the fourth straight day of triple-digit increases. Most of the new cases in the past few days have come from the densely populated Seoul metropolitan area, home to about half of the country's 51 million people.

Churches have been a constant source of infections, with many failing to require worshipers to wear masks, or allowing them to sing in choirs or eat together.

Health workers have so far linked 319 infections to Jun’s church after completing tests on about 2,000 of its 4,000 members. Police are pursuing some 700 church members who remain out of contact.

Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip urged anyone who participated in the weekend protest to come forward for testing if they experience fever or other symptoms. Jeong Eun-kyeong, director of South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said there's concern that the outbreak at the church could spread nationwide through its members' activities.