South Korea, the world’s 11th largest economy, has a troubling history with religious movements. Almost 30% of the population is Christian, but alongside traditional churches, marginal groups and charismatic leaders have thrived.
Jo Mit-eum, an expert on these groups, said South Korea’s rapid economic growth has created an environment where people seek spiritual values to counter materialism.
Tark Ji-il, professor of religion at Presbyterian University in Busan, argued that the country’s turbulent past – the Japanese occupation, the Korean War in the 1950s and the long military dictatorships that followed – may also make the country vulnerable.
Shincheonji is considered the second group of a wide range of South Korean groups with controversial reputations.
In Seoul’s suburb of Guri-si, Pastor Shin Hyun-wook has made it his mission to advise former church members.
Mr. Shin devoted 20 years of his life to teaching Lee Man Hee, achieving a coveted place in his inner circle of chief assistants before becoming disillusioned and stepping down in 2007.
He retains a rare glimpse of the group’s “dependence” on doctrine, recruiting and control techniques, and its ultimate goal of unifying the world through the Shincheonji faith. “Anyone who adheres loses their discernment. This is the most visible feature, ”he said.
He remembers Mr. Lee as a run-of-the-mill character with bossy and domineering traits and believes he fell infatuated with himself as his audience rapidly grew.
Despite decades in the upper ranks of the movement, Mr. Shin described a sudden awakening when he began to see through his teachings. The exit was more difficult.
The Telegraph’s efforts to contact Shincheonji at its headquarters in Gwacheon-si were unsuccessful.
Located in an indescribable six-story building above a covered market, Shincheonji’s office on the fourth floor is not marked on the elevator floor plan. A spokesperson first agreed to meet, but then canceled.
In Gapyeong-goon, Kyunggi province, an hour’s drive from Seoul, the large traditional house in a secluded rural area overlooking a pretty lake, where Lee Man Hee would reside, also looked deserted, his guard hut empty.
However, in a subsequent written statement, Shincheonji spokesperson Kim Young-eun claimed that the group never urged anyone to leave their workplace or school.
“If these allegations were true, the Shincheonji Church of Jesus would have been sentenced by a court,” she said.
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