The leader and self-proclaimed messiah of a South Korean religious movement at the center of the country's largest coronavirus outbreak on Friday called the disease "the devil's act" and a test of faith.
Lee Man-hee sent the message through an internal app used by members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, the Temple of the Tabernacle of Testimony, which he founded in 1984.
"This case is considered the devil's act to stop Shincheonji's rapid growth," he wrote in the message, the images of which were published by the Yonhap news agency.
"Just like the tests that Job went through, it should destroy our progress."
South Korea reported 52 new confirmed cases of coronavirus on Friday, bringing the national total to 156, the majority in Daegu, the country's fourth largest city with 2.5 million inhabitants.
From the national balance, 111 patients come from Daegu or nearby. Most were attributed to an infected 61-year-old woman named "Patient 31" who has been attending services at a Shincheonji Church branch for the past few weeks.
By Friday, more than 400 church members are showing symptoms of the disease, although testing is ongoing, Daegu Mayor Kwon Young-jin said during a briefing. Officials in Seoul said they would shut down Shincheonji churches there.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in called on officials to investigate the services closely, as well as a funeral service at a hospital in nearby Cheongdo County, attended by many members of the Church and which now has another group of cases.
The hospital was also the first coronavirus patient to die in South Korea, although officials were still trying to confirm his exact cause of death.
"We need a thorough investigation of the church and funeral participants," said Moon.
Lee urged his followers to follow government orders and hold meetings.
"The victims of the disease are now Shincheonji believers," he said. "Let us overcome this process too."
The health authorities have described the outbreak in Daegu and the surrounding area as a "super spreading event".
South Korean officials designated two areas as "Special Supply Zones" on Friday, while troops were confined to their bases to curb the spread of the virus.
The government also plans to deploy military medical personnel and provide temporary isolation facilities.
Malls, restaurants, and streets in Daegu were mostly empty, and Kwon, the mayor, described the outbreak as an "unprecedented crisis."
He said the city would prohibit any kind of mass gathering and repeated the call to residents to stay at home.
Many of the first patients in South Korea have recovered, but the sudden and rapid spread in recent days has raised the alarm as there are still many important unknowns surrounding the virus. It can cause pneumonia, which was fatal in some cases.
In Seoul, city officials said they would not allow the major protests and demonstrations that often take place on weekends, Yonhap said.
After several military personnel tested positive for the virus on Thursday, Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo decided to ban all soldiers from leaving their barracks and receiving guests.
Some exceptions are made for family emergencies or for soldiers at the end of their military service, the ministry said.
(Except for the headline, this story was not edited by NDTV staff and published from a syndicated feed.)