Cult or church? This Korean sect has thousands of devotees, but ex-believers lost faith and money

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By South Korea correspondent Carrington Clarke, Sook-young Lee and Mitch Denman Woolnough in Seoul

Posted Sun 2 May 2021 at 12:46amSunday 2 May 2021 at 12:46am, updated Sun 2 May 2021 at 6:37amSunday 2 May 2021 at 6:37am

A young Korean woman with shoulder length hair looking strong
Kim Eun-kang joined the Shincheonji church in 2014, but fled after a year. (ABC News: Mitch Denman Woolnough)

At 24, Kim Eun-kang was pursuing her dream of becoming a traditional Korean music singer. But she gave it all up to compete for a chance at immortality. 

“I truly believed that I was going to live forever,” the now 31-year-old told the ABC. 

When she joined Shincheonji Church of Jesus in 2014, the church’s spiritual leader Lee Man-hee was aggressively and successfully courting new followers.

Shincheonji was drawing away members from mainstream Christian denominations, who likened the sect to a cult. 

The church has its own calendar and would hold large-scale outdoor events filled with followers — all built around the personality, prestige and purported power of its leader. 

The proselytizing worked on a young and drifting Ms Kim. Despite her talent and the way her career as a singer was developing, she wasn’t feeling fulfilled. 

Two Korean women in face masks singing
Kim Eun-kang has now left the sect, and makes a living as a dance teacher, and sings at her new church. (ABC News: Mitch Denman Woolnough )

She hadn’t previously been religious but says the church seemed to offer the possibility of something greater. 

“Lee Man-hee said he possessed the spirit of Jesus. When he was shown in TV or in public, I would just start to cry. I felt some aura around him.” 

For Ms Kim, joining the church was about much more than just attending a service once a week.

“I quit my job, I devoted all time and started living in the Shincheonji,” she said. 

She said she was expected to spread the message of the church and bring in new members. 

“When I was there I was like a robot,” she remembered.

“I could not think by myself, I just listened to what I was told — brainwashed — followed what I was told. I would perform like an actress and promote the religion to others.”

Why Shincheonji vie for a place in the afterlife 

Shincheonji followers are awaiting judgment day.

Followers believe that after the apocalypse, only 144,000 true believers will be elevated to high priests.

The number is taken from Chapter 7 of the Book of Revelation, which it interprets literally. Jehovah Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have similar interpretations. 

This presents a problem for Shincheonji members: The church has about 204,000 of them, which means about 60,000 can’t reach the elevated status.

A Korean building with a man in a face mask walking by
Followers of the Shincheonji Church believe that judgement day is coming. (Reuters: Kim Hong-Ji)

Byun Sang-wook is a well-known news anchor in South Korea and he made a documentary series on Shincheonji. 

He said the “high priest” status cut-off creates competition among the devout for a spot, which is helpful for the church. 

“Competition results in members doing more work in Shincheonji, giving more money to Shincheonji and bring more members to Shincheonji,” Mr Byun said. 

“This is difficult to do while working or studying, so Shincheonji encourages them to quit, telling them there’s no use in finishing school when the apocalypse is coming soon.”

Shincheonji denied this in a statement to the ABC. 

“Shincheonji Church of Jesus has about 200,000 believers, and most of them live daily lives in very ordinary families,” the church said. 

Why so many fringe religions flourish in Korea

Compared with Europe, Christianity has a relatively short history in South Korea, but it’s been very successful in converting believers.  

Despite preachers only arriving there in the 18th century, about a third of South Korea’s 51 million people now identify as Christian.

Presbyterian missionaries from the United States were influential in shaping the growth of the religion, and it’s been noted that many of the sects that have sprung up mirror the beliefs of ultra-conservative sects spread across the American bible belt.

The country also has a history of shamanism, which appears to have fused with traditional Christian beliefs in these fringe sects. 

Perhaps the most famous sect in Korean history is the Unification Church.

It was founded by its self-declared messiah, Sun Myuung-moon, in 1954 and his flock are colloquially known as ‘Moonies’.

The sect gained sizeable media attention for its penchant for holding mass arranged weddings, often held in sports stadiums with tens of thousands of couples.

Park Geun-hye
South Korea’s president Park Geun-hye was impeached and imprisoned in 2016. (Reuters: Kim Hong-Ji)

Another fringe sect exerted influence over the most powerful political office in South Korea.

Former President Park Geun-hye was impeached and then imprisoned on bribery, coercion and abuse of power charges. 

She was brought down by her lifelong connection with a shadowy figure from an obscure religious cult that critics called a “shaman fortune teller”. 

Shincheonji came onto the Korean religion scene in 1984.

‘We see people running away from home’

Like fringe groups before it, Shincheonji argues that mainstream churches are so corrupt and decadent that they have lost their power to save Christians, according to Mr Byun. 

“Shincheonji says only through its interpretation of the Bible and through the leader can people be saved,” he said. 

Shincheonji is particularly active on university campuses. 

A Korean man in a suit with a slight smile on his face
“Competition results in members doing more work in Shincheonji,” Korean journalist Byun Sang-wook says. 

Mr Byun said parents sometimes complained their children join the church and turned their backs on both their family and previous goals. 

“We see people running away from home, dropping out of school and donating college tuition to Shincheonji,” he said. 

Shincheonji denied that it encouraged followers to leave behind their old lives. 

“The Shinchoenji Church of Jesus has consistently provided recommendations to members that they should not run away from home, [give up] studying, or divorce because of their religion,” it said. 

The church has spread outside Korea’s borders and has branches around the world, including in Australia. 

The pandemic shines a light on the church

Shincheonji received global attention last year when it was the centre of what was, at the time, the biggest COVID-19 outbreak in Korea 

More than 5,000 cases of COVID-19 were linked to the church and, at one point, it was calculated to represent 60 per cent of the cases in the country. 

In a nation where the population is nearly universally compliant with social distancing and mask-wearing, there was outrage that the church was flouting the rules.

Kim Jin-yong was a member of Shincheonji when the outbreak occurred, and he said it tested his faith. 

A young Asian man in wire rimmed glasses
Kim Jin-yong says he lost faith in the church amid the COVID-19 crisis. (ABC News: Mitch Denman Woolnough)

“I was told by Shincheonji we were immortal, but then I saw was witnessing members dying from COVID-19,” he said. 

“I realised Shincheonji was lying to me.” 

While Mr Kim was questioning his beliefs, saw greater scrutiny of the church and its practices. 

The church was reluctant to hand over details of its members for contact tracing, arguing they needed to be protected from discrimination and prosecution. 

The government said by withholding those details, the church wasted precious time, which allowed the disease to spread further. 

Shincheonji’s leader was chastened and during a nationally televised news conference, he knelt and bowed.

“I offer my word of deep apology to the people,” he said. 

His apology wasn’t enough for the authorities though. The 88-year-old was charged with breaking virus control laws. 

In January, however, he was acquitted after the judge ruled that the church’s failure to provide a full list of worshippers and church facilities did not amount to impeding the government’s pandemic response. 

An elderly man moves his face mask as he speaks into a microphone
Lee Man-hee was handed a three-year suspended sentence on embezzelement charges.  (AP: Kim Ju-sung/Yonhap)

But Lee Man-hee was found guilty of the embezzlement of the equivalent of $6.5 million. 

He received a three-year suspended sentence, so wasn’t sent to jail.

The court found that the embezzled money was partly used to fund a luxury ‘palace of peace’ on the outskirts of Seoul.

Although the compound was supposed to be used for church purposes, the leader admitted to occasionally using it as a home. 

Families of followers track down the leader 

According to court documents, Mr Lee is currently residing in a relatively nondescript apartment in outer Seoul. 

A Korea woman stringing up a banner between two trees
Choi Mi-suk is begging the leader of the Shincheonji church for help in locating her daughter. (ABC News: Mitch Denman Woolnough )

Choi Mi-suk heads to the complex every day. 

She sets up a small speaker and unfurls large banners, denouncing Shincheonji and Lee Man-hee. 

Ms Choi hopes her pleas to the church leader will lead to the return of her daughter. 

“Since my daughter left home, I gave up work. I have had no choice but to come out to the street to search for her,” she said. 

Ms Choi’s daughter was 20 years old when she joined the Shincheonji Church of Jesus Christ. 

A Korean woman embraced by a tall, young man
Ms Choi and her son desperately want their family member back. (ABC News: Mitch Denman Woolnough)

She hasn’t spoken to her daughter in more than a year 

“I saw her couple of times under the watch of Shincheonji. She became very skinny. It’s been more than a year since I saw her,” she said. 

Ms Choi has not seen her child since February.

“At that time Shincheonji promised to let her come back home but she hasn’t come yet,” she said. 

“I believe she will come back.” 

A Korean woman in glasses looking soulfully at the camera
Choi Mi-suk holds onto hope that her daughter will one day come back to her. (ABC News: Mitch Denman Woolnough)

If the leader is in the building and hears her pleas, he has so far chosen to ignore them. 

Ms Choi is undeterred, though, and vowed to continue her daily ritual until her daughter returns. 

Shincheonji told the ABC that Ms Choi’s daughter had not been a member of their church in three years. 

It was also claimed by Shincheonji that Ms Choi and her child were locked in “an old family feud”. 

A police report from 2018 shows that Ms Choi and her husband were involved in a physical altercation with their daughter over her affiliation with the church, but no charges were laid. 

Former believers try to save others

Kim Eun-kang lasted about a year in the church before choosing to leave.

She said members of the sect pressured her to stay but she found strength in the Ansan Sangrok Church, a congregation made up almost entirely by former members of Shincheonji. 

Ansan Sangrok followers actively try to encourage people to leave Shincheonji, which they consider to be dangerous.

A young Korean woman with bright pink lipstick looks wistfully at the camera
Now a member of the Ansan Sangrok Church, Kim Eun-kang tries to encourage Shincheonji members to leave. 

Ms Kim said she believed Shincheonji is manipulative and draws people away from their own families to further enrich the church, at the cost of followers’ mental health. 

She is back working in the arts, now as a dance teacher, and regularly attends services at the Ansan Sangrok Church where she sings. 

She seems happy but gets emotional when she talks about her fears for young members of Shincheonji. 

“I feel sorry that they spend their precious youth and time there,” she said through tears.

“I only spent one year there but I struggled so much after I came out from there. 

Two young Korean women singing into microphones in a church
Ms Kim now only sings in church. (ABC News: Mitch Denman Woolnough)

Ms Kim regrets walking away from her promising singing career in search of salvation. 

“I can’t restart my career so now I’ve had to spend a long time trying to find my identity,” she said. 

“Those were very hard times. I am so sorry that other young people will experience what I did.” 

Source: Cult or church? This Korean sect has thousands of devotees, but ex-believers lost faith and money – ABC News

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