The Shincheonji Church of Jesus – the shadowy religious organisation – suddenly leapt to the attention of the west following the Cornonavirus outbreak in early 2020.
The South Korean organisation is largely secretive, and has been labelled a cult by many. But why is this organisation enshrined in controversy, and what do they believe? We take a look.
About Shincheonji Church
The full name of the organisation is “Shincheonji, Church of Jesus, the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony”. Henceforth, we’ll refer to them as Shincheonji.
Shincheonji was founded in 1984 by Lee Man-hee – a man who remains in control of the organisation to this day. It is believed there are over 200,000 members of the organisation. Some have put the number as high as 300,000. “Shincheonji” roughly translates into “New Heaven and Earth”.
The main belief of the religion is that the founder Lee Man-hee, is the second coming. This may also be inferred as being Jesus returning to Earth in the form of Lee Man-hee.
Lee Man-hee: The Second coming?
Prior to founding the Shincheonji Church, Lee Man-hee was part of another religious movement in South Korea, known as the Jesus Christ Congregation Revival Association of Korea. That Church in itself has been accused as being a cult.
Lee Man-hee is the charismatic founder of the religion, and claims to have access to vast knowledge of scriptures – something he suggests others are not aware of. He proclaims that only by being a member of Shincheonji can someone “get to know” God.
The Church teaches that the end of the world is near, and that only a limited amount of people will advance to the afterlife. Shincheonji’s followers believe that by following Lee Man-hee, that they will join him in heaven after life.
Shincheonji is active as a Church – frequently holding services, and doing so in many countries. The Church is known for its proselyting efforts – where they attempt to convert members of other religions to their own.
This activity has stretched to international locations, including the United Kingdom, which led to warnings from the Church of England. It appeared that members of the organisation were posing as Christians, while secretly attempting to recruit new members.
Negative Accounts of Shincheonji Church
Former members of Shincheonji have gone on record to say that after joining, they were encouraged to gradually withdraw from their family, and to spend more time recruiting for the Church.
This went to the extent that some were encouraged to abandon their studies and essentially devote their life to the Church. This isn’t something that is unheard of in many other Church’s, it should be said.
As a result, the Shincheonji Church has been labelled as a cult by some. It should be pointed out though that many people speak very positively of the Church, and enjoy being part of their worship.
Shincheonji Church’s Role in Covid-19
While this organisation had existed for over three decades, it first came to prominence in western media due to Shincheonji’s role in the Coronavirus outbreak.
One of the first patients to test positive for the virus returned to South Korea from Wuhan – the hotspot of original infections. Despite her symptoms, the woman attended several gatherings in the subsequent week, leading to the spread of the virus.
The virus spread quickly throughout many members, with little effort allegedly being made to contain the virus. Within a few weeks, over half of the cases of Coronavirus in South Korea were accounted for by Shincheonji members.
This has led to the Seoul City government to sue the Church and twelve members (including Lee Man-hee) – on the grounds of “murder, injury, and violation of prevention and management of infectious diseases”.
South Korea has been heavily affected by the Covid-19 virus. Despite originally refusing to entertain the prospect that Shincheonji was involved in the spreading of the virus, Lee Man-hee profoundly apologised during a press conference for the lack of action from the Church. He also requested to be forgiven by the people and government of South Korea.
In Defence of Shincheonji
In fairness, significant fake news has been attributed to the Shincheonji. It is clear that hundreds of thousands of people see Lee Man-hee as the messiah, and worship him as such.
While there has been criticism based on the Coronavirus, the Church has attributed the act to the devil. The thing too about religious organisations is that one can never ever prove that what a leader claims is incorrect.
It is important to note that over 1,500 members of Shincheonji have donated plasma in an effort to aid the fight against Covid-19. Those that did so, did without any financial compensation. Regular prayers have been conducted by the group for an end to Covid-19.
Many praise Lee Man-hee for his role in brokering a unity agreement between religious leaders in an area of the Philippines – a conflict that had been ongoing for decades.
Many outside of the religion see him as an advocate of peace, or the leader of a religion that is just like any more conventional Christian denomination – only with the added claim of being linked to the second-coming.
The future of Shincheonji is unclear. They have faced a lot of criticism, though the organisation does have a huge membership, and has undoubtedly helped many people.
Shincheonji is sure to continue to polarise, with some supporting the Church and others merely labelling it as a cult. A petition calling for the Church to be dissolved has attracted more than 1million signatures.
But for many, Shincheonji is a way of life, and they wouldn’t want it any other way. If following the Shincheonji Church helps these people, then no one is entitled to order them to stop. Freedom of religion is a crucial tenet in any society.