Shincheonji Church of Jesus

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Shincheonji, Church of Jesus,
the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony
신천지
20150301NC백화점 과천점1.jpg
Shincheonji Headquarters located in Gwacheon
ClassificationChristian new religious movement
LeaderLee Man-hee
RegionSouth Korea and abroad
FounderLee Man-hee
Origin14 March 1984
South Korea
Separated fromOlive Tree
Tabernacle Temple
Members317,320 (According to the Health Ministry of South Korea)
245,605[1]
Other name(s)Shincheonji (accepted common name)
Official websiteen.shincheonji.kr
Korean name
Hangul
Hanja
Revised RomanizationSincheonji
McCune–ReischauerSinch'ŏnji

Shincheonji, Church of Jesus, the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony (SCJ), commonly known as Shincheonji Church of Jesus or simply Shincheonji (Korean신천지; Hanja新天地; lit. New Heaven and New Earth; IPA: [ɕintɕʰʌndʑi]), is an offshoot Christian new religious movement established in South Korea by Lee Man-hee.[2][3]

Shincheonji's teaching claims that their founder Lee is the pastor promised in the New Testament,[3] and that the Book of Revelation is written in secret metaphors (parables) which only Lee is capable of deciphering.[2] Before founding his own religious movement, Lee was a member of a controversial group called the Olive Tree, a new religious movement which spawned the first countercult movement in post-war Korea,[4] although this connection is not present in Shincheonji's biography of Lee.[5]

Shincheonji teaches that it is the true faith with its members receiving salvation at the time of final judgment. Everyone not in the group will be denied forgiveness and destroyed.[6]

In 2020, the group became the center of intense scrutiny during the COVID-19 pandemic in South Korea. The outbreak of coronavirus cases in Korea was initially centered in the city of Daegu after a 61-year-old Shincheonji member known as Patient 31 infected other church members causing the pandemic to surge in Daegu. As the disease spread among Shincheonji's members and thousands of others, there was a national outcry against the group and by 22 February 2020, over 1.3 million South Korean citizens signed an online petition to the Blue House requesting the government to disband Shincheonji entirely.[7]

Doctrine[edit]

The group is apocalyptic[8] and messianic in character,[9] and has been described as a doomsday cult.[9]

The group's founder and leader Lee ;[10] church followers variously refer to him as "Chairman Lee"; "the chairman"; "the promised pastor"; "the one who overcomes"; or "the advocate."[8] Adherents believe that Lee contains the spirit of the returned Jesus Christ and that the Bible is written in secret metaphors (hidden manna) which only Lee can correctly interpret.[2] The group believes that on the Day of Judgment, Lee will use 144,000 "sealed" adherents to testify the "revealed word" to the world, who will make up the "Multitude in White" who will go to Heaven with him,[11] where they will enjoy eternal life.[12]

The group has been accused of employing aggressive, and deceptive proselytizing practices. With a poor image in mainstream South Korean society and media perpetuated by interviews of vocal ex-members, who labeled the group as a secretive, harmful “cult",[13] some Shincheonji members hide their affiliation with the group in order to avoid discrimination and harassment,[14] although the group has said that doing so is not its official policy.[15] The group is regarded as heretical by mainstream Christian denominations.

History[edit]

Lee Man-hee was born in 1931. In 1967 Lee became a member of the Tabernacle Temple[5] which, under pressure from the "religious purification policy" of Chun Doo-hwan (coup in 1980), became affiliated with the Presbyterian Church. Lee left the Tabernacle Temple in 1971.[5]

Some have connected Lee to a countercult movement called Olive Tree,[4] but this connection is not present in Shincheonji's biography of Lee.[5]

On March 14, 1984, Lee founded Shincheonji and opened its first temple that June in Anyang, Gyeonggi Province. Membership grew and in June 1990 the Zion Christian Mission Center was established in Seoul. In 1995, the membership within South Korea was divided into Twelve Tribes, according to geographic territories. In 1999, the headquarters were moved to Gwacheon, which has a prophetic meaning within Shincheonji theology. Mainline Christian churches became alarmed at the loss of members, and the first cases of deprogramming Shincheonji members began in 2003.[citation needed]

Membership[edit]

In 2014, it was estimated to have over 120,000 members,[16] while a 2020 estimate put membership at around 200,000.[17] It was once the fastest-growing religious sect in South Korea.[18]

In March 2020, health authorities of the Government of South Korea investigating the COVID-19 pandemic officially declared to the press that they obtained an exact list of 317,320 registered Shincheonji members.[19][20]

Persecution[edit]

According to the International Institute for Religious Freedom, coercive conversion against Shincheonji members are carried out by evangelists, missionaries, and pastors of fundamentalist, mainline Protestant churches and pastors. In literature created by such churches and pastors, Shincheonji's theology has been deemed as "heretical" in a theological cleansing campaign.[21]

In Singapore, 21 members were arrested for congregating together, and were charged with being a part of an "unlawful society". They face up to 3 years in jail if convicted. [22]

Threats towards Shincheonji[edit]

On April 4 2020, a 39-year-old man threw a rock at the Ulsan branch church, breaking a glass window at the front entrance of the church building. His stated motivation was his thought that COVID-19 spread because of Shincheonji members. On August 26 2020, he was found guilty of property damage, and was sentenced to 6 months in prison with 2 years’ suspension of sentence, and 80 hours of mandated volunteer work.[23]

On September 21, 2020, a Shincheonji branch church in Daejeon, South Korea received an anonymous threat letter, containing white powder later identified by the Chemical Safety Agency and the Geumgang Basin Environment Agency to be cyanide, a USB containing a bitcoin address, and a message demanding 14.4 billion won. The anonymous message stated that harm will come upon Shincheonji congregants if the requested 14.4 billion won was not deposited.[24] The case is still under investigation. Police investigation has ruled that the threatening letter was originally addressed to a different Shincheonji location in Gyeonggi-do.[25]

Controversy[edit]

Protest against Shincheonji, Wonju-si

Political controversy[edit]

The group has been accused of exerting influence on politicians and political parties. A former member accused the Chairman Lee of Shincheonji of having created the former name of the Liberty Korea Party. Until 2017, the Liberty Korea Party was named "Saenuri Party". On November 6 2020, the prosecutor's office ruled that there was no evidence to support this accusation and that there was no connection between Lee and the creation of the Saenuri Party.[26]

Accusations against the church[edit]

The sect has been accused of actively infiltrating other churches to convert other churches' members.

  • South Korea – Its members have been reportedly sighted in Myeongdong Cathedral, allegedly pretending to be pious believers seeking to lure other Koreans or foreigners into their own religious meetings.[27]
  • United Kingdom – In November 2016, the Church of England issued a formal alert to around 500 parishes in London about the activities of a Shincheonji affiliate known as Parachristo. Parachristo, a registered charity in the UK, runs Bible study courses in London Docklands, and was using these courses to recruit members of the Church of England.[28] "Those who become involved [in Shincheonji] gradually withdraw from friends and family and actively lie about their real lives."[28] Further warnings were issued by Nicky Gumbel, vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton, and John Peters, rector of St Mary's Church, London.
  • New Zealand - In April 2017, several local Korean churches in Auckland including the New Zealand Korean Churches Association and the Immanuel Korean Church warned their congregations that the Shincheonji was seeking to recruit members through their Bible classes, encourage members to cut family ties, and sending "reapers" to infiltrate and take over other churches.[29] In April 2019, several churches in Wellington including The Street church and Blueprint Church raised concerns about the Shincheonji's methods in recruiting members from their congregations. The historian Peter Lineham also described the group's recruitment techniques as "dangerous" and "deceptive."[30]
  • India – In August 2019, the Baptist Convention in Manipur, India, warned worshippers to be wary of Shincheonji. "Their leader Lee Man-Hee claims to have access to secret knowledge of scriptures which other church pastors do not know. Moreover, he claims that one can truly know God only by following and listening to the teachings of Shincheonji. Once they are into this group, they spend most of their time inviting people to join Shincheonji group and spend less time with their families, friends and churches and neglect and quit their studies or work."[31]
  • Singapore - In late February 2020, Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam announced that the Ministry of Home Affairs would be investigating the local Shincheonji chapter for fraudulent activities including creating front companies and using deceptive methods to recruit young people into their sect.[32][33][34]

Association with the coronavirus outbreak[edit]

Cases of the Shincheonji cluster

The sect became involved in controversy during the COVID-19 pandemic, an an outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 infections followed from the participation of a SARS-CoV-2 infected person, "Patient 31", at the organization.[35][36] A dozen Chinese members of the church from Wuhan were also connected to the Daegu Shincheonji outbreak.[37][38]

In Busan, a 61-year-old Daegu resident is believed to have spread the virus and was diagnosed on 18 February 2020.[39] At the time, the South Korean government had neither introduced social distancing nor restricted travel from China (apart from travel from the Hubei province).[13]

On 18 February 2020, Shincheonji issued a church-wide announcement of Patient 31's confirmation and closed down its churches and affiliated buildings.[40]

On 20 February 2020, Shincheonji's Daegu branch submitted a list of its members to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to aid with contract-tracing.[41] The Daegu congregation list was publicly leaked and some Shincheonji members allege they consequently became the targets of undue injustices, such as forced leave of absence from work, discrimination, insults, and coercive pressure to quit their jobs.[14]

By 20 February 2020, 53 new cases were Shincheonji attendees or their families,[42] reaching over 300 by 23 February, over half of all cases in South Korea in February.[43] The subsequent resurgences of the virus in September 2020 and December 2020, however, surpassed the numbers seen during the outbreak associated with Shincheonji and have accelerated at a faster rate than the spread associated with Shincheonji's Daegu branch church.[44]

Privacy concerns[edit]

On February 24, 2020, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency requested a list of all Shincheonji congregants. The list included congregants’ name, citizen registration number, address, name of place of employment, and family member information. A day after, Shincheonji submitted the list of all congregants and complied with the government's request. [45]

There was no deadline listed in the official information request letter sent to Shincheonji for epidemiological investigation. The official request also did not ask for members’ citizen registration numbers. Despite this, officials from the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency requested members’ citizen registration numbers to be included in the data. [46]

There was a day's delay in submitting information, however, as Shincheonji officials asked the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency about the legality of providing congregants’ citizen registration numbers and if the government will protect the congregants’ private information.[46]

On February 25, 2020, Shincheonji officials provided the list of requested information for all of its congregants.

In the October 2020 trial of Chairman Lee Man-Hee, where he is accused of not complying with epidemiological investigations, an official from the Korea Ministry of Health and Welfare acknowledged that Shincheonji officials made effort to provide the requested congregants’ information. The conversation records between Shincheonji officials and the Agency official show an expression of concern over privacy, not a refusal to provide information or a refusal to cooperate.[46]

Chairman Lee's counsel argued that the request for congregants’ citizen registration numbers had nothing to do with epidemiological investigation. [45]

In the initial discussion between representatives of Shincheonji and the Blue House, the Blue House official in charge of the case was made aware of Shincheonji's concerns for congregants’ safety and privacy, and the omission of information from certain congregants, such as minors and those at special risk for persecution, such as elected politicians or public officials.[47]

The police have determined that the intention for omitting certain congregants’ information was not for the purpose of obstructing disease prevention and control efforts, but to protect congregants of Shincheonji.[47]

In a recorded phone conversation, Chairman Lee told the Shincheonji representative in charge of communicating with the government to provide congregant information that “since the government is doing what Shincheonji should’ve done instead, we must actively help [the government].”[47]

Alex Azar, United States Secretary of Health and Human Services, described South Korea's approach to COVID-19 as something that "would likely not fly here in the United States" and referred to the South Korean government's authoritarian crackdown on Shincheonji as he described how South Korea "used their military and police powers to lock down that church, arrest everybody that was in contact with individuals in that church."[48]

Legal battle[edit]

With an additional 4,000 cases of COVID-19 within two weeks, and roughly 60% of the total infections nationwide having stemmed from the church,[49] the Seoul city government asked prosecutors to press charges against the religious group's founder and senior members for murder, causing harm, and for violating the Infectious Disease and Control Act.[11] Interviews have occurred with all 230,000 members of the religious group and nearly 9,000 were said to be showing symptoms of the virus.[50]

After a lawsuit was started by the Mayor of Seoul, on 25 February 2020, the Governor of Gyeonggi Province Lee Jae-myung, along with 40 officials, entered the Shincheonji headquarters office without a warrant and seized 50 computers after making a forcible entry into the headquarters.[51] The authorities checked the list seized during the raid with the one Shincheonji had supplied, and concluded that discrepancies were minor.[52] The Seoul City government filed legal complaints to state prosecutors against 12 leaders of the church, accusing the group of homicide, causing harm, and violating the Infectious Disease and Control Act.[53][54]

On 31 July 2020, Lee Man-Hee was arrested by South Korean authorities for allegedly hiding crucial information from contact-tracers and other offenses; by this time the Shincheonji Church was being linked to more than 5,200 coronavirus infections, or 36% of South Korea's total cases.[55] The Vice Minister of the Ministry of Health and Welfare (South Korea) has publicly stated that Shincheonji has cooperated with authorities.[56]

On 28 September 2020, Lee requested bail, citing concerns over his deteriorating health condition.[57] The prosecution opposed the request. In South Korea, bail is permitted, with few exceptions. The prosecution's rejection of Lee's bail request has raised questions from journalists and legal scholars on the validity and fairness of the reasons for rejection.[58] Lee, who has explicitly encouraged church members to abide by government-mandated social distancing orders, has been detained since 31 July 2020, and his previous appeals for bail were rejected.[59]

Lee was granted bail on November 12, 2020 with the court noting Lee's consistent attendance and compliance during court proceedings, as well as the health concerns of detaining a 90-year-old senior in prison.[60] The prosecution has requested 5 years of prison and a fine of 3,000,000 Korean Won for Lee.[61]

After the outbreak amongst Shincheonji's Daegu branch church in February, 51 Shincheonji-related locations in Daegu have been closed. Out of this, 14 locations have been shut down since February of this year. Shincheonji has only held online services since February. However, its buildings continue to remain closed and Shincheonji has requested for the courts to reconsider the order for building closure. Shincheonji is requesting access to the buildings for the sake of building maintenance, not for usage of religious meetings or activities. The City of Daegu, however, has rejected the request, stating that building maintenance is currently not needed and that the public opinion against Shincheonji's Daegu Church still has not recovered. The courts have not yet ruled against or for the request. The situation could also be resolved upon an agreement between Shincheonji Daegu Church and the City of Daegu.[62]

Shincheonji response[edit]

In a press conference in early March 2020, the church's founder Lee Man-hee publicly kneeled and bowed his head to the ground in a traditional Korean gesture of apology, apologized for church members unintentionally spreading the virus, and said that the church was cooperating with the government.[63]

In response to the negative media attention on Shincheonji, Lee Man-hee spoke publicly about being misunderstood or falsely accused.[6] Shincheonji has been cited as the "most vilified group during pandemic".[13]

On 26 August 2020, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) thanked Shincheonji for 562 of its congregation members donating plasma for COVID-19 treatment research, and requested collaboration with Shincheonji to hold a large-scale plasma donation drive from 26 August 2020 to 4 September 2020. An additional 1,100 Shincheonji members are estimated to donate plasma in collaboration with the KCDC.[64]

On 16 September 2020, Shincheonji held an interfaith online prayer meeting titled “COVID-19 Overcome Online Prayer Meeting” to pray for the speedy end of COVID-19.[65]

On 26 September 2020, Shincheonji's volunteer association began a ‘prevention volunteering’ campaign, with Shincheonji members volunteering to sanitize shopping districts and passing out hand sanitizers and masks to local businesses.[66]

On 3 November 2020, the KCDC announced that starting from the 16th of November, there will be approximately 4,000 additional recovered COVID-19 patients from Shincheonji who will donate their plasma for the development of a treatment.[67]

Over the course of 2 rounds of large-scale plasma donation drives with Shincheonji, a total of 2,798 members agreed to participate in the drive, and 2,030 successfully donated plasma. From the Daegu Church of Shincheonji, 1,700 congregation members donated plasma over the course of July and August of this year. The Director of the KCDC expressed his deep gratitude towards Shincheonji for actively participating in the plasma drive.[68]

Discrimination[edit]

According to the National Human Rights Commission of Korea and the Korea Insight Research Institute, there were 86,451 cases of online hate speech and expression targeted towards Shincheonji between February 2020 and May 2020 on various social media platforms, online community boards, and blogs, blaming Shincheonji for the spread of COVID-19.[69]

On February 26, a female Shincheonji member was reportedly being attacked by her husband who was trying to compel her to leave Shincheonji and died after falling from her 7th floor apartment.[13] On May 4, a 42-year-old female Shincheonji congregation member, who was a victim of spousal abuse allegedly due to her affiliation with Shincheonji, died after falling from her 11th floor apartment.[13]

In March 2020, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) expressed concern that religious freedom rights of Shincheonji members may be violated in South Korea by "exaggerating the church's role in the outbreak," and stated that, "USCIRF has received reports of individuals encountering discrimination at work and spousal abuse because of their affiliation with the church".[56] The USCIRF reported that South Korean "Vice Minister of Health Kim Kang-lip has publicly stated that the Shincheonji church has cooperated with authorities".[56]

The Belgian NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers and CESNUR released a white paper claiming that, although Shincheonji made mistakes in its management of the crisis, Shincheonji had also been discriminated against because of its status as an unpopular group in South Korea.[70][71] Some sect members have alleged that broader Korean society has unfairly blamed them for spread of coronavirus.[72]

In August 2020, NGOs and human rights activists, including the former president of the United Nations Human Rights Council, sent a joint letter to Foreign Minister of South Korea Kang Kyung-wha and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to urge the South Korean government and the United Nations to stop the ongoing oppression against Shincheonji.[73]

At the 10th World Human Rights Cities Forum held in Gwangju, South Korea from October 7-10, 2020, representatives from non-profit and human rights organizations highlighted how discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities, such as Shincheonji, increased in South Korea as a result of COVID-19.[74]

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