Five South Korean nationals and two Singaporeans are assisting with local investigations regarding an unregistered Singapore chapter of a South Korean religious cult, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said in a statement on Friday, Feb. 28.
Shanmugam: Reason to believe they misled and defrauded people into certain actions
Singapore's Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam said on Friday that investigations started as there was reason to believe the Shincheonji Church of Jesus (SCJ) — widely believed to be a cult due to its unorthodox teachings — misled people and defrauded them into "certain actions".
He further said the ministry accelerated the investigations as the same cult in South Korea is involved with "a very large number of Covid-19 cases".
South Korea, which experienced a spike in confirmed Covid-19 cases recently, is currently screening over 210,000 members for the virus.
South Korea is currently the country with the most number of infected patients outside mainland China, and about half of the cases are reportedly linked to the church.
What is SCJ?
MHA noted in its statement that Lee Man-Hee, the founder of the SCJ, has claimed to be the second coming of Christ, and would bring 144,000 people to heaven with him on the Day of Judgment.
He also claimed to be the only person who can interpret the bible.
The statement further said that SCJ allegedly regards all other churches as belonging to Satan, and teaches that it is okay to use deceit and lies if it "serves God's purposes".
In addition, MHA stated that investigations have revealed the local SCJ chapter used "similar deceptive recruitment methods" to get Christian youths and young adults to join their group.
"Members are not allowed to contact one another, verify teachings with other churches, or inform their families of their involvement", the statement read.
Singaporean who attended local SCJ meetings spills
A Singaporean, who claimed to have attended bible studies held by the Singaporean branch of the South Korean church, told Mothership that his experience fits with MHA's description of the SCJ.
He has requested anonymity, and we shall be referring to him in this article as Chen.
Here's his personal account, which we have edited for clarity.
Attended bible study three times a week
Chen said while the Singaporean chapter of the SCJ does not have a name, their teachings are "very similar to the SCJ", adding that the bible studies he attended taught about the "promised pastor".
He started attending their bible studies in mid-November 2019 and was a regular, going for the sessions for three times a week.
In total, he went for the classes for about slightly more than three months.
Each bible study, attended by around 30 people, lasted for 2.5 hours.
He added that they were not allowed to bring their notes out of the sessions.
Agreed to attend the bible study
Chen told Mothership he was first roped into the bible study sessions after he was approached by two persons who asked if he had any questions about the bible.
He then attended a few one-on-one bible study sessions with one of them, before the person introduced him to a bible study course that was slated to last for about four to six months.
He was drawn to the sessions as he felt that they were giving "deeper insights" on the bible.
As for the location, he said the sessions were held at a building located on 42 MacTaggart Road, close to Tai Seng MRT station.
But he added that they had shifted their sessions online for two more weeks due to the Covid-19 outbreak.
He claimed that the location was not permanent, as they could move to another place should the organisation be exposed.
Taught that "all churches" are wrong
Chen said the teachers at the bible studies taught the students that "all churches are wrong and that the world of Christianity is in darkness", which was how they tried to persuade students to leave their own churches.
He added that he believes the teachers and some members of the organisation still remain in their own churches in order to "bring this teaching to the rest of the congregation or slowly bring people to the bible study sessions".
Students were "lured in"
He also said the organisation initially taught the basics to "lure" them in, before they start to teach something else that seemed to contradict what the students — who are mostly Christians — have learnt from their own churches.
For instance, he said students were gradually led from Jesus to "this man whom they claimed as the Promised Pastor to have the right interpretation for the bible compared to all the churches".
Throughout the time when he was attending the bible studies, Chen said he was still attending his original church's services, although he kept this a secret from the members of the organisation.
Told not to have their own interpretations about the bible
Chen said members of the organisation kept telling the students in the sessions not to have their own interpretations about the bible, and to always clarify their doubts with the teacher in charge of the group.
He said the teachers do not allow them to think critically, and constantly told them to "throw their thoughts and doubts away".
He said: "They will keep repeating what was taught and back it up with bible verses to indoctrinate us and make sure we interpret it the way they do."
He added: "And when we have deeper questions, they told us it will be taught in future lessons and we will know it at the right timing."
Furthermore, he claimed that members would conduct one-on-one reviews with those who have "many doubts" and those whom they deem as not being able to accept their teachings.
Not allowed to be too close to other students
He also claimed that students of the bible study sessions are separated once they "become too close", "for fear of [them] challenging [the members] and becoming hard to manage".
He said they were "not allowed to exchange numbers among the students or have any spiritual discussions" during the classes.
In fact, Chen claimed members of the organisation would separate students into different groups so "they will not have friends within the group and will only consult the teacher and make the teacher their confidant".
He even said some members would pretend to be new students and tell on the students whom they thought were disobeying the teachers.
Chen said the teachers want the students to be "more and more emotionally dependent on them" so the students will be "more emotionally invested and not want to escape".
Doesn't want others to know of their existence
In addition, Chen said the members of the organisation do not want the people around the students to know that they were attending the bible study.
He said they were expected to put "the study of God’s Word" before everything else.
In addition, he said students were requested over time to skip cell groups and family dinners, or any social events like company dinners if possible, unless it was work-related.
"It is our suspicion that they will not hesitate to lie about [their] personal lives in order to build closer bonds with you so as to recruit and retain members, as they do not consider it lying when they are doing God's work."
Hard to extricate oneself from the sessions
Chen added that the teachers of the bible studies would not reveal their organisation till the course is over in order to retain the new students they roped in.
Some people, he claimed, only learnt of the organisation "after a year or 18 months" from the time they first started attending the sessions.
Many will stay on by that time as they are "probably brainwashed", he said.
Chen said while most would think they are "strong and won't waver", the members of the organisation "can be very convincing and powerful if (one is) not careful".
He said: "Everything they say seemed to be backed up by scriptures and you can't argue with them because only they tell you it is a secret given to them by God and you will know at the right time."
Teachers will try to get close to the students and gain their trust
He also said the members will "start to be very personal" in order to gain the students' trust, such as inviting students to their homes, and telling the students that they did not do the same for other students, in order to make them feel "special".
In addition, he claimed the teachers would meet with the students regularly in order to ease themselves into the latter's lives.
He said: "They will target your vulnerabilities after getting to know you."
He further claimed that many teachers told them that if not for the "Revealed Word" — a term Chen explained to refer to revelation from God — they would have "committed suicide, became crazy, or found life (to be) meaningless".
Started having suspicions when he saw news on SCJ
Chen told Mothership he realised the bible studies he had been attending was a cult when he saw the news on SCJ, and thought their teachings and recruitment methods were similar to what he had experienced.
He said: "I had my suspicions because this organisation was being very secretive and how their teachings are always about the same point."
Chen has since stopped going for the classes in February 2020, and is simply attending services and activities at his own church.
Top image via Shincheonji's YouTube