A secretive “cult” has been going to Auckland churches to recruit new members through “deceptive” tactics, a church leader says.
Hangyul Cho, the associate pastor at Northcross Church on Auckland’s North Shore, said churchgoers and other pastors in Auckland had reported recent approaches by Shincheonji Church.
Shincheonji Church of Jesus, also known as Mount Zion, is a secretive movement founded in 1984 by Lee Man-Hee, 91, in South Korea.
The group is known for infiltrating churches and university groups using deceptive recruitment techniques and has been active in Aotearoa for a number of years.
Their teachings are heavily focused around the end of the world and they have been criticised for brainwashing people and breaking apart families.
The founder of the group, Lee Man-Hee, professes to be Christ's messenger and is referred to as “God's advocate” by followers.
Cho said recently a couple of people told him they’d been approached by members of Shincheonji after church services.
“I spoke with other pastors and our own congregation and found many people had recently been approached to go to Bible classes – four people this week have been in touch.
“People have told us they’re using their tactic of befriending and inviting people to Bible study without mentioning where they’re from.”
Members of Shincheonji would often ask younger church members to attend groups as a way to introduce them to the cult, Cho said.
“We decided we needed to address it during a service and teach people about cults and how Shincheonji operated.
“No-one who joins a cult is thinking they want to join a cult, we’re all vulnerable to it to some degree.”
Despite Shincheonji being founded in South Korea, Cho said the members weren’t targeting Korean Kiwis, but rather anyone in their 20s.
Peter Lineham, an emeritus professor of religious history, recently met with Shincheonji members at their church in Auckland and said the encounter was “curious”.
“It’s important to note something has changed recently – it’s unprecedented for them to come out publicly and invite someone like me to their church. I think it has to do with what happened in Korea during Covid.”
Shincheonji was linked to one of South Korea’s largest Covid-19 outbreaks in 2020 and the group had to hand over the names of all members for contact tracing.
“It’s really quite unethical to pretend to be something you aren’t and I know in the past they went to churches and universities in Auckland in a deceptive way,” Lineham said.
“Now they’re advertising more freely in newspapers and on billboards, so I thought they wouldn’t still be concealing their identities at churches.”
Churches were open to the public, Lineham said, but it was “inappropriate” to try and recruit people there.
“Shincheonji tries to attract people who are troubled by wanting to understand life more. They target young people as they’re a natural group who struggle with feelings around their sense of belonging.”
Lineham said it was also important to remember there was no precise meaning of the word cult and Shincheonji was technically a “religious movement”.
“Often we as people label things as cults when it’s new and we don’t know what to make of it.”
Cho said it did seem like Shincheonji was putting more about itself online through advertising, but some of the group’s social media had been taken down and didn’t mention its doctrines.
“They’re being more open in that way but still using the same recruitment tactics. There’s deception and secrecy around their organisation.”
Cho said churchgoers should be careful when giving out contact details to people they didn’t know.
If they were invited to an event, they should ask questions about what group was running it, he said.
“I wish things weren’t this way but we have to be super vigilant in protecting ourselves from high control cults.”
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