Former members of a Korean doomsday cult are sounding a warning that the religious sect is turning its focus to Pacific nations. Melanie Earley investigates.
Undeterred by public scrutiny in Aotearoa, a secretive religious group is expanding into the Pacific Islands and “targeting” Pasifika people from faith backgrounds.
A group of former Shincheonji members said there was immediate concern at news of the cult’s fresh outreach programmes in Samoa and the Cook Islands.
“We’ve been disappointed and concerned about Shincheonji’s attempts to recruit in Samoa and elsewhere,” said a spokesperson for the group What is Shincheonji, which is a collection of New Zealand-based former members.
“Many from the Pasifika community in New Zealand have suffered spiritual abuse, depression, post-traumatic stress and damaged relationships with family from being involved in the group, and we don’t want to see more of that.”
The spokesperson said it was concerning to hear the doomsday cult was approaching people in Samoa as most of those in the island’s very high Christian population were unlikely to have previously heard of the church.
Cam*, who left Shincheonji in 2022 after realising he no longer believed in the sect’s teachings, agreed much of the Pacific was “very spiritually open”, which left them at risk of being recruited into new Christian groups.
“We have churches all around the globe – we’re not specifically targeting any areas,” the spokesperson said.
“We are just wanting to spread the love of Jesus in Samoa.”
Members of Shincheonji’s Aotearoa branch are setting up the new church in Samoa, and have recently been featured as guests on a Cook Islands radio station during its “Godly hour”.
In March, Shincheonji, under the name Zion Christian Mission Centre, announced it was holding an “exhibition” in Samoa’s Latopa, and said it was hoping to start a new chapter of the church on the island.
“I’ve heard it’s going very well in Samoa,” the spokesperson said. “We’ve been growing rapidly globally.”
Shincheonji, also known as Mount Zion, is a controversial South Korean religious group that has been described as a cult by a number of former members.
The sect was founded in 1984 by Lee Man Hee, and is known for infiltrating churches and university groups using deceptive recruitment techniques. It has an established presence in New Zealand.
Former members have previously told Stuff they were “brainwashed” by the group, cut off from family and friends and were expected to spend every waking hour evangelising, studying and teaching for Shincheonji.
The Shincheonji spokesperson said the reason members were so careful about revealing who they were and keeping membership a secret was due to “persecution and bullying”.
“Back in Korea Shincheonji was at one point a lot more open, but we were persecuted by other groups for it. I want to openly share my faith.”
Speaking with The Samoa Observer, Mareko Taafua, a regional instructor for the group, mentioned Shincheonji was looking to expand into the Pacific, beginning with Samoa.
“Maybe in the next year or so we can reach out to other Pacific countries.”
The spokesperson for What is Shincheonji said they “strongly advised” people in Samoa avoid attending classes belonging to the group, but if they did, they should be mindful of sharing too many personal details.
Shincheonji recently featured on the radio station PMN Cook Islands speaking in a fortnightly session during the station’s “Godly hour”.
Cam* heard about the show and got in touch with the head of content at the radio station to voice his concerns.
”I heard back from their head of content, and they said they were looking into it for me and found it quite concerning that a cult-like group was getting air-time.”
Cam said he never heard back from the station again about what decision was made, but he hadn’t heard any further mention of Shincheonji on air.
PMN Cook Islands was contacted by Stuff for comment but did not respond by deadline.
”I believe Shincheonji are dangerous because of who they target and how they target them,” said Cam.
“Primarily, they target Christians who are seeking a deeper understanding of the bible and are lacking something in life.”
Cam said during his time in the group members were asked to keep their membership a secret, and he wasn’t even allowed to tell his family what was going on.
Members were instilled with “phobias”, Cam said, and told Satan was trying to pull them away.
“They said Satan controlled the internet to stop us from researching the group.
“They’ve recently changed the way they work to be more upfront about who they are, but I believe there’s still a lot of control.”
Reverend James Bhagwan, general secretary of the Pacific Conference of Churches, said he was “very aware” of Shincheonji in the Pacific.
Bhagwan, who now lives in Fiji, spent two years in Korea working on a Masters degree in theology and became aware of the group during that time.
Ten years ago, Shincheonji started up in Fiji, Bhagwan said, using the name Heavenly Culture, World Peace, Restoration of Light.
Similar groups were active across the world, Bhagwan said, but many worked their way into the Pacific due to the region’s high percentage of Christians.
“Around 90% of people in the Pacific identify as Christian, so there are often new churches popping off.”
Bhagwan said he wasn’t aware of Shincheonji opening a church in Samoa, but he hoped governments of different islands and churches were aware of Shincheonji and similar groups.
”They speak about world peace and bringing communities together under their beliefs and doctrines, but their type of theology is concerning to us.
“They pull members out of other churches to make their own and while they seem innocuous on the surface, if you look deeper, indoctrination is taking place.”
*Name changed to protect identity.