Leaked documents reveal how a controversial religious sect aggressively recruits new members in Aotearoa, cutting them off from family and friends. Melanie Earley reports.
Jasmine* gave up her job, savings and friends so she could dedicate five years of her life to Shincheonji Church of Jesus, also known as Mount Zion.
She cut off contact with friends and even needed permission to see her family, with every waking hour spent dedicated to a group she now describes as a cult.
“I was always exhausted. There wasn’t time to reflect or think for myself.”
An NZ spokesperson for Shincheonji, Urszula Bluszcz, disputes the group being called a cult and says it’s “misunderstood”.
“Cult has a negative connotation – it makes people think there’s something wrong with the activities of a group.”
Shincheonji was 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 an established presence in New Zealand.
Jasmine says recruiting was referred to as “evangelising”.
“We focused on social media and places like MeetUp, profiles on Bumble BFF [the dating apps’ friendship version] and Facebook to recruit.”
Jasmine would try to get as many phone numbers as possible with the goal of getting people to classes.
WhatsApp messages and spreadsheets supplied to Stuff showed detailed lists of new Kiwi recruits, who were referred to as “fruits”.
The spreadsheets included personal details including whether potential recruits were Christian, how they were recruited and goals and personal information about their lives.
One note mentioned the “fruit” had broken up with her boyfriend and how another had a health issue they were concerned about.
Another entry, marked in red, noted one of the recruits had dropped out and had been “confirmed poisoned”.
Jasmine was targeted while volunteering at the LIFE church in Auckland.
“A man approached me and struck up a conversation, I had no idea he was from Shincheonji.
“He left and spoke to another member about me and a couple of weeks later she approached me at church.”
Jasmine says the woman told her she’d just moved to the country from South Africa and was checking out local churches.
“I offered to show her around, and we became friends – a few weeks later she introduced me to her flatmate who she said was teaching her the Bible.”
The flatmate repeatedly asked Jasmine to join bible studies, which she did, and eventually she was invited to a group class which was made out to be a “spontaneous” event.
Classes were three times a week. Jasmine originally said no to joining as it seemed too much, but she says the flatmate “aggressively” persuaded her until she agreed.
“I ended up really enjoying it,” says Jasmine. “I liked the people and learning more about the Bible, but I was being indoctrinated.”
After a few months of classes, Jasmine’s friend told the class she was a recruiter for Shincheonji, and they’d learnt enough to have the church revealed to them.
“I felt betrayed by them lying to me about who they were and being my friend, but I noticed the other recruits didn’t seem upset at all, so I persuaded myself it was OK.”
During classes, Jasmine says, they were told there was a second coming of Christ and the church’s leader Lee Man Hee had been chosen by Jesus to have his spirit work through him.
Jasmine left her former church as she was told all other churches were “ruled by Satan".
At Shincheonji services, members wore black and white only and earrings weren’t allowed as they were seen as a sign of “slavery”.
Jasmine says women weren’t allowed to wear anything above the knee or show their shoulders, and all skirts and dresses had to be worn with tights.
“You had to do volunteer work and in services Lee Man Hee would be shouting and calling people lazy for not doing enough,” says Jasmine.
“People knew we were approaching churches so they wanted us to find different ways of recruiting, I remember going on a Christian flatting group and pretending to look for a flat.
“I’d go to viewings and try to strike up friendships as I knew those people were already Christian and potentially more open to it.”
Facebook was also used as a recruiting tool and Jasmine says members would use fake names to hide their real identity.
The Covid-19 pandemic gave Jasmine some breathing space from the constant demands of the group.
“I rekindled friendships and realised I didn’t agree with what Shincheonji were doing. I didn’t believe any more.”
She was pushed out after meeting with leaders to raise concerns “about the deception and teachings”.
Jasmine says members of Shincheonji who she considered friends, no longer speak to her.
“They believe I am poison.”
Jasmine, who no longer identifies as Christian, believes the coercive tactics used by the group are dangerous.
“It’s not healthy – I lost five years of my savings, being able to work on a career and live my life. I lost a lot.”
‘They brainwashed me’
John and Audrey* spent two and a half years in Shincheonji’s Auckland branch and left a few months after Jasmine.
John says he was recruited when a new person came along to a MeetUp karaoke group he hosted and they “clicked right away”.
“We started getting coffee once a week and each time our conversations got deeper.
“I mentioned I was a life coach, and he told me he knew a guy who was too, and I should meet with him. From there the three of us started hanging out.”
John says intense conversations during the meetings soon led to spiritual discussion.
“I didn’t consider myself Christian, but one day this guy pulled out a Bible and I decided to be open to what he was telling me.”
The meetings became twice-a-week bible studies, which increased to three times a week. Eventually John's new friend told him he had to go back to the UK due to a “family emergency” but his mentor stayed on.
“He casually brought up this group class. I wasn’t keen, but I was pushed into it. I thought it would be just a one-off thing.”
The classes became three times a week and while John didn’t know it, half of the group who pretended to be new were established members of Shincheonji.
“Over the next eight months they brainwashed me. I was coerced into ending my business and they told me to end my relationship with my girlfriend, now wife, Audrey.”
Ten months into John’s new friendship, he was told his friend was really a recruiter for Shincheonji.
“I felt disgusted when I found out he’d been lying to me, I thought we had a genuine friendship but everything I told him he’d report back.
“I didn’t know how to process it, but there was barely time to as you immediately become a recruiter yourself.”
John says church members wrote a text for him to send to Audrey about why they should distance from each other.
But instead of leaving her, John says he recruited her into the group.
John evangelised while Audrey became a bible teacher, with every day spent trying to recruit members.
“We believed our salvation depended on it. There was a time you couldn’t go home until you recruited four people a day, so you’d have people desperately going round Kmart at midnight.”
If members went back without recruiting enough people, John says they were yelled at or “gaslit” by senior members.
“They kept you so busy there was no time to maintain friendships, [and] you became sleep-deprived.”
John says bible stories were used to suggest that friends and family outside the church could prevent your salvation, and those people should be distanced.
When John’s grandma was dying he was told to do more work for the church rather than see her – as a result he only saw her right before her death.
As Audrey rose through the ranks she says teachers knew “everything” about the students, including very personal information.
Members were expected to give 10% of their salary to the church, with regular monetary donations also expected on Sundays or whenever members felt “thankful”.
The couple eventually realised they had become trapped in a cult.
“It was insidious and devious,” John says. “We realised this was psychological abuse. They were ruining lives.”
John and Audrey were paranoid around leaving the group as they’d been taught those who left would be possessed by evil spirits.
“There’s so much shame in talking about what happened, especially when you first leave,” Audrey says.
“You have this big gap in your CV and people don't understand why you stayed so long or how you were indoctrinated.”
Peter Lineham, an emeritus professor of religious history, earlier told Stuff that while Shincheonji’s tactics had changed in recent times, its philosophy was well-established.
“Shincheonji tries to attract people want to understand life more. They target young people as they’re a natural group who struggle with feelings around their sense of belonging.”
Lineham says the word ‘cult’ has murky meanings, and Shincheonji is more accurately described as a “religious movement”.
“Often we label things as cults when it’s new, and we don’t know what to make of it.”
Shincheonji spokesperson Urszula Bluszcz admits members have approached the public, but says recruiters now use flyers and disclose their affiliation.
“The reason we didn’t disclose was because there’s a lot of misinformation around the church, we’re heavily persecuted by Christian communities and we wanted people to learn about our group before judging.”
Members aren’t encouraged to cut off friends and family, Bluszcz says.
“We’re passionate about our volunteer work, but how much is done is up to individuals – no-one is forced.
“We spread the word as far as possible and absolutely don’t encourage members to leave their jobs or study.”
Bluszcz also says confidential information about new members was “protected" and “wouldn’t be shared by anybody”, and people who left the church could contact those who were still members.
“Despite the persecution, Shincheonji has been trying to become the light of the world as Jesus taught.”
While Shincheonji says it’s now more open, Cam*, who left in 2022, says recruiting is “stronger than ever”.
“There are similar techniques used when recruiting still, and while they’re advertising more openly, members are still asked to keep their membership a secret.”
Cam says the church wasn’t revealed to him until he had attended bible classes for six months, and by then he was “enthralled” by the teachings.
“I didn’t have to leave my job, but I was very busy and wasn’t allowed to tell family what I was doing.”
Members were instilled with “phobias”, Cam says, and told Satan was trying to pull them away.
“They said Satan controlled the internet to stop us from researching the group.”
Cam says members lived in an “echo chamber of fear”, and he eventually realised he didn’t believe after secretly doing his own research online.
“I was made to feel like I was the problem for having questions, and told to leave if I didn’t stop.”
Cam warns anyone approached by the group should do their own research before committing.
“Don’t shut off critical thinking – doubting is not evil or from Satan and you don’t need to feel guilt over it.”
John and Audrey made a fresh start overseas after their “traumatic” experience.
“When you leave you can live life with autonomy,” says John, who has a simple message for anyone who’s thinking about leaving.
“There’s people out here who will support you.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
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