Dubai -- Just what the leader of an alleged South Korean cult was doing in the UAE this week remains a mystery, after self-proclaimed peace activist Lee Man-hee made a brief appearance as part of a Middle East tour.
Mr Lee is the leader of Shincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony (SCJ), which is part of the Heavenly Culture, World Peace, Restoration of Light, known as HPWL. It has been reported the church’s followers believe he is immortal.
A delegation from the group, which bills itself as an international peace organisation, also toured Ethiopia, Egypt, Qatar, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Bahrain.
Mr Lee takes every opportunity to be photographed with political leaders and figureheads. His critics say it is little more than a propaganda exercise to increase the church’s popularity in his native South Korea.
Zackary Downey, a Canadian, is a former English teacher in South Korea who blogs about the church’s operations.
“Their message is that world peace will be achieved by uniting cultures,” he said.
“The purpose of the rallies is to show the church is reaching out to all of these different cultures around the world.
“There is pushing and shoving at some rallies, with family members trying to reach their daughters and sons who are involved with the church.”
Mr Downey said he had had run-ins with various volunteers, but no direct dealings with the church itself, or its chairman.
“Church leaders are saying they can’t see their family, or even talk to them. They are cut off from any contact.”
The group recruits foreigners by attracting young people into sports or photography clubs, but many become disillusioned when they realise SCJ’s role.
As with Scientology, Mr Downey said, the SCJ likes to go after people who post negative comments about it online.
He said: “Peace events in Korea are a regular occurrence, but they stage similar propaganda events all over the world, recently in the Philippines.
“They are just PR stunts to be seen alongside world leaders, with no actual peace agreements signed.”
The HPWL held a “Dialogue of Scriptures” in the Gurunanak Darbar Sikh temple in Jebel Ali Gardens, in Dubai, last Sunday.
Gloria Kim, a spokeswoman for the HPWL, said: “The World Alliance of Religions’ Peace Office (Warp) is where different religious leaders gather and make an effort to find the answers for peace through the Holy Scriptures they have.
“The first Warp was held in Dubai at the Sikh temple, with about 30 participants from different religions. They were all encouraged and motivated to continue on this global movement. The visit was very successful and it is expected to prosper as time goes.”
On claims the church was a cult, Ms Kim said: “Please look at those youth doing the peace work together with Mr Lee – are they the faces of people who are captured and separated from their families by force?
“Unfortunately, facts do not stop the lies online. People on the internet feel free to say anything when hiding their faces and names.”
The HWPL campaign began in 2013 with a small peace walk. Since then its following has increased to include an international peace youth group with 384 branches in 86 countries, and a women’s group with 100 branches in 16 countries.
In January last year, Mr Lee claimed a victory in the signing of a unity of religions agreement between Catholic and Muslim leaders to bring an end to a 40-year conflict in Mindanao, in the Philippines.
Dr Pamela Chrabieh, assistant professor of Middle Eastern studies at American University Dubai, has a doctorate in theology-sciences of religions. She said the SCJ should be carefully studied. “For its members, the leader Lee Man-hee is believed to be the returned Jesus.
“For its sympathisers, Man-hee is seen as a renowned Korean peace activist. For the anti-Shincheonji individuals and groups, he is a mad, self-proclaimed immortal.
“For some scholars, SCJ is a Christian denomination that offers free Bible courses and is just like any other denomination.
“In recent years, the South Korean press, families of Shincheonji members and confused expatriates have been trying to piece together what SCJ is, but the controversy appears to be far from resolved.”
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