The shadowy cult at the center of South Korea’s coronavirus outbreak
Shincheonji claims to have about 200,000 followers in South Korea and wants to expand its influence in the West
- Text by Chaewon Chung
- Photo by by Jung Yeon-Je/AFP via Getty Images
The moment I learned that followers of the secretive Shincheonji Church of Jesus — South Korea’s most shadowy religious cult — had been infected with coronavirus, I called my parents in Seoul and asked them to stay indoors and not go out unless absolutely necessary. I said this knowing how Shincheonji members go out into the streets in a bid to recruit new members. Last year, I spent a few months researching Shincheonji, which claims to have attracted about 200,000 followers in South Korea and is now expanding its influence in the West.
Health officials are now battling to contain South Korea’s coronavirus outbreak, in which members of the secretive Shincheonji Church of Jesus, along with their relatives and others who got the virus from them, account for more than 450 cases of all confirmed infections. By Wednesday, the number of cases had reached over 1,100 — second only to mainland China.
More than 9,000 Shincheonji members have been put under quarantine, and the government plans to test all of them for the virus.
Here are five facts that you may not know about the organization:
Shincheonji is a religious cult that originated in South Korea.
Shincheonji, which means “new heaven and earth” in Korean, was founded in 1984 by Lee Man-hee, 88, the self-styled “savior” of the group. He claims to be a prophet who will sit with Jesus on his throne in heaven after a coming apocalypse. Shincheonji does not dismiss the existence of Jesus, but rather claims that he failed to save humanity and Lee Man-hee is Christianity’s new savior. The group’s main objective is to convert people into believing that Lee Man-hee is the true savior of the Christian faith.
Followers of Shincheonji use their own calendar, marking March 14, 1984 — the day the church was established — as the beginning of the “Sincheon Period.”
Shincheonji is wealthy.
According to the National Coalition Against Shincheonji, as of 2017, Shincheonji’s assets included around $400 million in property.
Shincheonji aims to recruit Christians and take over Christian churches.
One common strategy Shincheonji uses to increase its ranks is to send its members into Christian churches to divide congregations, eject pastors out of their leadership roles, and eventually replace them. Some Christians in South Korea claim this is why Shincheonji poses more danger to churches than many of the other cults that exist in the country.
Shincheonji’s influence outside of South Korea is growing fast.
According to Christian researchers who study cult in South Korea, Shincheonji began to expand its influence overseas around 2014 by sending its followers to countries around the world. I’ve learned from cult researchers in South Korea that Shincheonji currently has branches in 40 countries, including the U.S., and claims to have more than 22,000 followers worldwide.
One of the church’s offshoots, Heavenly Culture World Peace Restoration of Light, is located in Koreatown in Manhattan.
Shincheonji has used different names in different countries since it began its drive for expansion in the early 2000s. In November of 2016, the Church of England sent out a formal warning about a registered charity, Parachristo, that was found to be connected with Shincheonji. The CoE warned churches against possible infiltration and the promotion of “control and deception”.
Former followers have accused the group of wrongdoings.
Shincheonji’s former followers contend that the group persuades recruits to run away from their families. They also say the group financially exploits its members, and uses them as a labor force to convert others. Shincheonji takes money from its followers by way of “offerings”. Shincheonji followers have denied any allegations of wrongdoing.