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Appeal of coronavirus-hit cult raises tough questions for South Korea

Controversial Shincheonji Church of Jesus boasts over 200,000 members

Lee Man-hee, founder of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, bows on the floor as he apologizes for his church’s role in spreading the coronavirus at a press conference in Seoul on March 2.   © Yonhap/ Kyodo

SEOUL -- The Shincheonji Church of Jesus has come under the spotlight at home and abroad since the South Korean religious sect became a hotbed of the country's explosively spreading coronavirus outbreak.

South Korea has emerged as one of the major coronavirus hot spots outside mainland China, the epicenter of the outbreak, with the number of infected people already exceeding 6,000, largely due to the mass infection among Shincheonji followers.

Shincheonji has been branded a heretical sect by mainstream Christian churches. But since its establishment less than four decades ago, the religious group has rapidly grown into a massive organization with more than 200,000 members.

Lee Man-hee, the sect's founder and leader, knelt down on the ground and apologized at an emergency news conference in front of a Shincheonji premises in Gapyeong county, near Seoul, on March 2.

"I never thought this would happen, even in my dreams. I seek the forgiveness of the people," Lee said.

While noting that all Shincheonji churches have been closed, he stressed that his organization will spare no "personnel and physical support" for the South Korean government's efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Shincheonji was thrust into the spotlight in late February, when a mass infection was confirmed at its church in Daegu, South Korea's third-biggest city. The virus spread rapidly as many followers knelt down on floor cushions and spent many hours together for church services.

Alarmed by the mass infection, the South Korean government ordered the organization to submit a list of its 210,000 followers and embarked on an examination of them all.

The number of coronavirus tests in South Korea is exceptionally high, compared with Japan and other countries, because the government is leaving no stone unturned in its drive to examine all Shincheonji members, as well as people living in Daegu and surrounding areas.

But cases of authorities communicating with but failing to meet Shincheonji members based on the submitted name list or being denied cooperation by them have arisen one after another.

Distrust of Shincheonji has grown, arousing suspicions that it is intentionally hiding information.

The municipal government of Seoul filed a complaint with prosecutors against Lee and other Shincheonji executives, claiming that the name list was incomplete, and even falsified. They are accused of crimes including homicide and violation of the infectious disease prevention law.

South Korean Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae instructed the prosecution to investigate the case.

It has emerged that while the number of Shincheonji followers has surpassed 200,000, it has also been doing active missionary work -- news that has sent shock waves through South Korean society.

So why has Shincheonji been able to acquire so many followers?

"It's largely because it has shrewdly changed its 'missionary marketing' in accordance with the trends of the times and people's interests," said Chung Yun-seok, who runs the website Christian Portal News and has authored a book about the fraudulent nature of Shincheonji.

According to Chung, the core of the controversial religious group's doctrine is "eternal life" based on its own interpretation of the Revelation in the New Testament.

The sect teaches its followers that only 144,000 chosen people can become one with the same number of spirits descending to this world from heaven, live to be 1,000-years-old, and live in prosperity with their families.

The teaching attracts young people who find life difficult and want to be chosen to join the select group. In fact, 40% of the sect's followers are in their 20s and 30s. "They sacrifice everything, including their schools, workplaces and families," Chung said.

Shincheonji followers look for recruits in their missionary work by attending personal development seminars held at local cultural centers and elsewhere, religious programs organized by other churches, and club activities at schools and companies as well as calling out to people in the street.

They invite their targets to meals and tea, and carefully find out about their troubles and concerns.

Shincheonji is a highly secretive organization. Its followers initially do not identify themselves as such, preferring to befriend their targets before inviting them to bible study meetings.

Recruits are persuaded not to let others know about their participation in such study meetings -- even their parents and close friends -- on the grounds of would-be "obstruction by the devil."

"The sale of the guru's (Lee's) books and sermon compact discs used at study meetings and donations are the religious group's main revenue sources," Chung said.

There has also been a spate of trouble between the sect and families of its followers.

A victims' group held a news conference in front of the South Korean presidential office on the morning of March 5 and announced that it would file a complaint about Shincheonji's alleged misconduct to President Moon Jae-in.

Victims called for the return of their children it accuses Shincheonji of taking away from them, and for leader Lee's arrest.

A female former Shincheonji follower in her 20s spoke at the news conference. She said that she had joined the religious group when she was 17 after answering a questionnaire in the street. At the time, she was struggling with fiercely competitive university entrance examinations.

"I had to spend seven-to-eight hours a day on the religious group's activities. I also gave up on going to the university I wanted, because of objections [from Shincheonji]," she said.

When she was 20, she was taken out of the sect by her parents. "When I was inside [the sect], it was heaven. It was not until I got outside that I realized it was a cult."

A victims' group calls for the return of children they say Shincheonji took from them, and the arrest of its leader at a press conference held near the presidential Blue House. (Photo by Sotaro Suzuki)

At the news conference, parents talked about their plight one after another, sharing stories of their children joining the sect, running away from home and not returning.

One parent said, "When I tried to bring them back, the child requested the police for their personal protection," while another said, "When I took part in a protest, I was monitored and followed [by members of the sect]."

There is also a rumor that Shincheonji is related in some way to the conservative opposition United Future Party.

The party's predecessor is the Saenuri Party, which was in power under the administration of former President Park Geun-hye.

"Saenuri" means "new world" in Korean. Gyeongsangbuk-do Province, where Shincheonji leader Lee was born, is also imprisoned Park's former electoral power base.

In his March 2 news conference, Lee was wearing a gold-colored watch with "Park Geun-hye" written on its face, adding fuel to the theory of a possible connection between Shincheonji and the United Future Party.

But both Shincheonji and the United Future Party deny the rumor.

So how will Shincheonji respond to criticisms from alleged victims and their families?

A spokesperson for the sect counter-argued that those complaints are "contrary to the facts."

The spokesperson said, "We have no facilities to make young people stay. If we did such a thing, we would be arrested by police. There are also young people who cannot return to their homes after being disowned by parents who go to different churches."

In response to criticism from other religions that Shincheonji is a heretical sect, the spokesperson also said, "The established churches cannot understand the bible. They probably do not want to lose followers to us."

After rapidly expanding its influence by filling a void in young people's hearts, Shincheonji is now embattled. More than 1.2 million people have signed a petition on the presidential Blue House's website calling for the sect to be forcibly disbanded.

But it is also pointed out that South Korean society itself is partly responsible for Shincheonji's rapid growth as it has failed to extend a helping hand to young people in distress.

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