Secretive Shincheonji religious sect 'forced by circumstances in Korea' to open up, expert says

New Zealand Herald/September 3, 2022

By Lincoln Tan

The Herald revealed in 2017 a secretive Korean "cult" had opened a branch in New Zealand. Five years later, Lincoln Tan was finally allowed inside their Auckland hub.

From the road, you wouldn't know it's the gathering place of group that some believe is a "dangerous cult".

The ground floor is retail space, once occupied by architectural hardware company Knobs & Knockers but now up for lease.

Stairs leading up to its New Zealand headquarters and main temple on the second-storey of the building in the central Auckland suburb of Grafton have no signage.

Visitors have to be escorted up by members of Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a secretive movement founded in 1984 by Lee Man-Hee, 90.

Followers believe Lee - who was recently found guilty of embezzling $6.7 million in South Korea - to be the promised Messiah of Christ.

In South Korea, Shincheonji has a following of hundreds of thousands.

The Herald revealed in 2017 that the group had opened a branch in Auckland and that warnings had been issued by church organisations about its alleged deceptive ways of courting new followers.

Shincheonji now has a branch in Wellington and claims to have upwards of 200 members.

When a Herald reporter and photographer first visited the temple in 2017 it was to seek the group's response to a warning the Korean Churches Association had put out.

The association represents Korean Protestant Churches, and its spokesman at the time said that in their opinion, Shincheonji is a dangerous cult that harmed families, society and churches.

A year earlier, the Church of England in the UK also issued a formal alert to 500 parishes in London about Shincheonji and called for vigilance.

But when we got into the temple, a Shincheonji leader locked the main door of the building while we were inside and demanded we surrender the camera and mobile phones.

When we refused, a scuffle started as the member tried to grab the camera and snatch the phone.

The fire exit at the back of the building was used as an escape route when the member got on his mobile phone to call for back-up.

Then, on July 7 this year, anot0her Shincheonji representative reached out to the Herald on Sunday.

In an email, she requested an article be published on behalf of the group about its online Bible seminars run by Lee.

"As Shincheonji Church in New Zealand is growing rapidly and attracting a lot of attention, we would like to help New Zealanders to be informed about the events hosted by the church," she said.

Shincheonji's teaching claims the Book of Revelations is written in secret metaphors or parables, and only Lee as the pastor promised in the New Testament is capable of deciphering it.

It teaches that only Shincheonji faithful can receive salvation at the time of final judgment and everyone not in the group will be denied forgiveness and destroyed.

Members are promised entry to the "new heaven and new earth".

The Herald on Sunday met with the representative, who arranged for a return visit to the temple for an interview with another of its leaders.

It was also agreed for Emeritus Professor of Religious History Peter Lineham to be present to better understand Shincheonji.

Lineham has previously said that in his opinion, Shincheonji is a "dangerous sect".

He says a big concern about Shincheonji is how its members allegedly secretly join other churches, and then slowly converted members of that church into moving to Shincheonji.

Shincheonji also operates under many names, including Zion International, Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony, Parachristo and Mannam.

The representative who spoke at the temple was Steve Leilua, 26, leader of Shincheonji's young adults.

Leilua says things have changed since the pandemic, and members are now being asked to be more open about who they are and their links to the group.

A Samoan who grew up a Methodist, Leilua joined Shincheonji in 2018 after he was invited to one of its Bible classes.

"I felt I didn't need God, I felt I could succeed by just hard work," he says.

"But I was introduced to the Bible classes by Shincheonji which showed me otherwise."

Shincheonji was forced by Korean authorities to release the names of its members after being caught up in the pandemic.

It was at the centre of South Korea's first major Covid-19 outbreak in February 2020 when a member who attended services was identified as a super spreader.

It initially refused to give health authorities a list of its members for contact tracing, resulting in government officials forcibly entering Shincheonji's headquarters in Gwacheon in a bid to obtain the information.

"This is partly why we had no choice but be open about who we are," Leilua says.

A list of all members of Shincheonji Church was requested by the South Korean government including all overseas members, a Shincheonji spokeswoman said.

She said most members in NZ have never been to South Korea, so it was unsure why such a request was made.

"We understand the Government needs to take extra measures for the sake of public health-, however we find this request excessive and in violation of human rights," the spokeswoman said.

"But we have provided everything we were asked to provide by the Korean authorities."

The city of Seoul subsequently sued Shincheonji, accusing Lee and 11 other leaders of the sect of homicide, causing harm and violating the Infectious Disease and Control Act. Lee was also accused of embezzlement and holding unapproved religious events.

Lee was found not guilty of breaking virus control laws, but guilty of embezzling 5.6bn won ($6.7 million) and was sentenced to three years in prison. He was given a four-year probation period, meaning he will stay out of jail as long as he doesn't re-offend during the period.

None of the other leaders were convicted of anything and no one was found guilty of homicide.

Shincheonji continues to protest about being "scapegoated" by many keen to discredit the movement.

Observers say there has been a noticeable shift in how the group is operating.

Once very secretive about who they are, Shincheonji now places advertisements, including in the Weekend Herald, and on social media promoting its Shincheonji online seminars.

"We are now being encouraged to identify ourselves to those we are sharing our faith with, that we are Shincheonji, so they will know what they're in for," Leilua says.

He says Shincheonji was forced by circumstances to "operate in secretive ways".

Members are often targeted by non-believers, including by other churches and the media because of their links to Shincheonji, Leilua says.

"In Korea, several lives of members were lost when they could not face the pressure of the targeted attacks since the virus outbreak."

Inside the Shincheonji temple in Auckland, the interior is minimalistic.

A double door entrance with a large Shincheonji emblem leads to its main worship room - known as the temple.

Leilua says the temple is currently not often used as services are still online.

There are three other rooms, one is used for Bible study and another is a kitchenette and dining area.

The third room stores Shincheonji books and acts as a wardrobe for blue gowns meant for members to wear at graduation.

Photos of Shincheonji's large outdoor events and graduation ceremonies line the corridor wall.

Recruits are required to go through mandatory Bible study sessions where they are taught fundamental doctrines of Shincheonji.

To graduate, they need to take an exam consisting of 300 questions and need a passing score of 90.

The church has its own calendar, and before the pandemic outbreak held large-scale outdoor events filled with its followers in Korea.

Leilua says his parents and family do not know he is with Shincheonji. However, he denies he has been told not to talk to them about it.

"I don't openly share with my family about my faith, because I don't stay with my parents.

"No one's told me not to talk about it, I just don't see the need."

Leilua says he will be okay about his parents finding out about him being with Shincheonji through this article.

In 2017, a University of Auckland law student and former Shincheonji church attendee claimed the group paid for a friend's airfare to "escape his family" in Auckland to live with believers in South Korea.

Another student allegedly donated his entire university's fees to the sect after he was convinced that earthly education was of no use to him.

Last year, a woman who left Shincheonji also spoke to the media, warning others of - in her opinion - Shincheonji's fraudulent recruitment techniques.

Pastor Steve Worsley, from the Mount Albert Baptist Church in Auckland, says he gets contacted up to three times a month by people suffering relationship breakdowns because of Shincheonji.

Worsley says Shincheonji has been writing to smaller churches, putting advertisements up on social media and "pushing their brand as hard as they can".

"People who have left Shincheonji tell me that their 'Messiah', Mr Lee, puts constant pressure on his followers to make more converts, and threatens them in case they should fail.

"Their latest approaches to recruiting people reflect this need to constantly increase their numbers.'"

Worsely says the sect says people are free to come and go as they please, but many who left talk about what they believe is immense pressure and manipulation put on them to stay.

"They've changed their strategy but they're still equally deceptive."

He said he believed: "They are pretending to reach out on a certain basis but are not upfront about their real goals. They frame it in a way like they're a normal church, but they don't tell you that you'll be required to worship a different messiah or that you'll be coached on how to deceive your family and loved ones, they don't tell you that upfront."

Leilua says he can't comment on other people's experiences but Shincheonji has never paid for anyone to go to Korea.

Professor Lineham says "there's no doubt" Shincheonji has shifted its position as a result of what happened in Korea.

"The move of being more open and upfront is a huge and significant change for Shincheonji.

"I suspect that Lee has, for whatever reason, decided he needs to keep it safe with the authorities.

"For that reason, they have to be more open and upfront about who they are because they can't afford for another kind of interrogation by state authorities."

But Lineham says despite the changes, Shincheonji remains "a very closed sectarian group with a narrowly defined group of people".

"Groups do change, and in this case the circumstances could have produced that change, but it won't change the incredibly narrow and sectarian view of this group."

Lineham says Shincheonji's teachings are that everyone who does not follow its ways are doomed and going to hell.

"Korea will be where the new creation begins, and from each of the 12 Shincheonji tribes, 12,000 will be chosen and only they can be saved as pastors. The rest have to earn their way.

"They claim to be the only source of salvation and all other churches are false. Shincheonji represents the new heavens and new earth which are beginning now."

It also teaches that anyone who leaves the movement are Antichrists, and those who oppose it are evil.

Lineham says it is "intriguing" that all commands for what members here can or cannot do come directly from Korea.

"I find his [Leilua's] explanation as to why he hadn't talked to his family about his links with Shincheonji utterly unconvincing.

Lineham says that in his opinion, "he clearly had been told not to talk to his family, there's clearly a dissimulation going on."

Shincheonji said it hasn't received orders from the top, but the decision has been given after careful consideration of the situation around the world, global media coverage and discussions with branch churches.

It said references to the group as a controversial cult or sect puts members at risk of being bullied, their families taking measures to get them out of Shincheonji or distancing themselves "not because of what Shincheonji is but because of how Shincheonji is labelled".

"This is because of mistrust and fear that such vocabulary brings," the group's spokeswoman said.

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