A University of New South Wales student has recounted the warning signs he missed before his friend became enmeshed in a cult so deeply it "totally took over his life".
Ethan began to worry his friend Keegan* had joined a cult when his weekly "bible study" commitments became so intense he was left unable to work or pay rent.
"He came to me and said 'I can't pay board because I need to buy a new phone to get OneNote so I can teach the Bible on campus'," Ethan, 21, told news.com.au.
"He would go to uni every day and preach, do walk-up evangelism … or go on Facebook Messenger or Instagram and contact people and ask them if they would like to join a Bible study.
"He couldn't work, because he was attending these studies every day, he had church three times a week – it became a fulltime commitment that totally took over his life."
Keegan had joined the International Churches of Christ (ICC) – also known as "Multiplying Ministries", "International Christian Church" or the "Discipling Movement" – a fringe Christian cult renowned for targeting university students on campuses in Australia.
Originally formed in 1979 by radical preacher Kip McKean, the group became renowned for its rigid teaching and extreme views, with the mainline Church of Christ movement quickly disavowing the group.
Followers are frequently told they are the only people who will achieve true salvation, with converts encouraged to break ties with their friends and family in order to prioritise their "spiritual" community.
The group is renowned for its aggressive recruitment campaigns – known colloquially as "blitzes", and university students, especially those with minimal support networks around them, are a prime target.
The group has been formally banned from operating at a number of universities across the country including UNSW, but remain connected through the "UNSW Lions", who advertise weekly meetings which are held on campus, sometimes in student accommodation.
The student group have renamed themselves multiple times to remain on campus, but engage with ICC churches on social media, and host regular talks by ICC church ministers.
A link on the Lions' linktree titled "our church" also leads straight to the Sydney ICC branch homepage.
Having arrived in Sydney from rural NSW to study, Keegan met members of the ICC through a walk-up evangelism campaign conducted by the group.
From there he experienced "love bombing" – a common manipulation tactic identified by psychologists whereby an individual is showered with praise and attention, which slowly becomes more conditional over time.
"He was quite lonely when he moved to Sydney because he didn't know many people, but then he met the group and was baptised within three months," Ethan said.
"He was being constantly contacted by a member of the group who was assigned to be his mentor … they were always looking over his shoulder and essentially grooming him.
"After he joined the group his relationship with his girlfriend collapsed, and he berated her publicly in our house, calling her 'impure' because they had been in a sexual relationship.
"He now refers to himself now as a 'truth-seeker'."
Keegan was left unable to pay rent due to his commitments to the ICC.
In a letter addressed to Keegan obtained by news.com.au, a leader told him that he was "joining a family – a spiritual family – that extends throughout the whole world".
"We are your people, and you are ours, through and through," it read.
Another document, which appeared to be a leader's guide for mentoring new converts, encouraged attendees to prioritise their "spiritual family over their physical family".
Emma, a former ICC member and recruiter, recalled that university students were a major priority for the group.
"We would have big campaigns, goals, and targets to reach," she said.
Like so many others, Emma, who joined the group when she was 19, discovered that the initially welcoming community quickly gave way to financial, emotional, and physical abuse.
"There was coercion, and emotional abuse – especially from 'mentors'," Emma said.
"New members would be assigned a mentor who would check in on you every day and they would shout, scream and put you down as a way of 'teaching' you.
"You couldn't go on dates without it being approved first by a mentor, and then they could tell you whether or not you could maintain that relationship going forward."
The abuse also became physical at times.
"There were sessions where people would be sat down in front of a heater until they would experience burns, as a warning for what hell would feel like," she said.
"Other times people would be sat down in the middle of a circle while a group of peers screamed at you and shamed you for 'sins' – those sessions could go on for up to five hours until you were considered to have repented.
"The ICC had this idea that unless you were with them, you were doomed to hell, and your life would be a misery – it was a totalistic view."
Cult Information and Family Support Service president Tore Klevjer warned that vagueness from evangelists about who they were representing should be a major red flag for students.
"Cults never tell you everything upfront – there's not a series of questions that you can ask a cult recruiter and expect a straight answer to," Klevjer said.
"If you can try to find out the real name of the group then that is a great start because then you can do a Google search."
He continued; "Getting out of a cult is a very tricky thing – sometimes people never do [escape].
"It depends on whether they've cut off family and friends, whether or not they have money – you have people coming out of the cult who are seriously damaged with post-traumatic stress disorder sometimes."
Ethan believes it was the lack of family and friends around Keegan that made him a prime target for the ICC.
"They really fed on his vulnerability", he said.
"They told him 'we're your family, we'll support you' … they complimented his intelligence and appearance … and then started pressuring him to distance himself from his support networks.
"They've told him that people like myself, who try to engage and ask questions, have been manipulated by the devil.
"For the ICC, the brotherhood comes first, even at the expense of other relationships."
Ethan said that when he attempts to talk to his friend about the group he "becomes really angry and aggressive".
"He developed quite radical and at times misogynistic and homophobic attitudes," Ethan said.
"When he realised I wouldn't listen to some of the things that he said I became a lost cause to him."
When contacted for comment, a spokesman for the Religious Centre at UNSW said they were not aware of the church, and couldn't comment on any activity that may be taking place on campus.
However, a spokesman from the UNSW-sanctioned Campus Bible Study confirmed they were aware of the group's activity, and were supporting students looking to break ties with them.
Both Keegan and a spokesman for the UNSW Lions told news.com.au in separate statements that they were not affiliated with the ICC.
*Name has been changed for legal reasons
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