COVID-19: MHA seeks to ban Singapore branch of controversial Korean church

Shincheonji -- a secretive religious group in South Korea -- proclaims its founder has donned the mantle of Jesus Christ and will take 144,000 people with him to heaven on the day of judgement

SINGAPORE — The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) is looking to ban the Singapore chapter of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony (SCJ), the controversial church at the centre of the coronavirus outbreak in South Korea.

In a statement on Friday (28 February), the MHA said that five South Korean nationals and two Singaporeans are assisting with ongoing investigations into the unregistered local chapter of SCJ.

A ministry spokesperson noted that it had been investigating the SCJ since before the COVID-19 outbreak. “In the normal course, the investigations into SCJ would have taken another few weeks to conclude.

“MHA decided to accelerate its investigations into SCJ, and consider earlier action, because of reports linking SCJ’s practices to the COVID-19 cluster in Daegu in South Korea. If the local members of SCJ had been in recent contact with the Daegu chapter of SCJ, then there could be health risks to Singapore.”

However, said the spokesperson, interviews with SCJ members in Singapore who have been called up so far found that they have not been in recent physical contact with persons from the Daegu infection cluster.

Four of the South Koreans currently assisting in investigations entered Singapore before the outbreak of the virus in Daegu and Cheongdo. The fifth person came into the country last Friday, but checks indicate that she is well.

There are now 2,337 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in South Korea - the second highest of such infections outside mainland China - and 13 deaths reported in the country. The infection originated from the Daegu branch of the SCJ.

What is the SCJ?

The SCJ was founded by South Korean national Lee Man-Hee in 1984. It has been accused of being a cult in several countries due to its unorthodox teachings.

Based on testimonies of former members, Lee claims to be the second coming of Christ, who would bring 144,000 people to Heaven with him on the Day of Judgement. He has also claimed to be the only person who can interpret the Bible.

“SCJ allegedly regards all other churches and pastors as belonging to Satan. SCJ teaches that it is acceptable to use deceit and lies if it serves God’s purposes. It has been accused of infiltrating and disrupting established Korean churches by using deception and secrecy to trick people into becoming involved with them,” noted the ministry.

Following investigations, MHA believes that the local SCJ chapter has used similar “deceptive recruitment methods”, using front entities to target Christian youths and young adults to join their group. A controlling influence is then exerted over these young members, requiring them to comply with strict instructions to conceal the local existence of SCJ and their involvement with it.

Members are not allowed to contact one another, verify teachings with other churches, or inform their families of their involvement, said the spokesperson.

SCJ members also attempted to register a company in Singapore under the name of “Heavenly Culture, World Peace & Restoration of Light” (HWPL) in February 2019. MHA raised security objections to the registration of HWPL, as MHA believed that HWPL was going to be used as a front for SCJ.

Subsequent investigations found that SCJ had previously incorporated another front company, “Spasie Pte Ltd”. Spasie describes itself as offering consultancy services, as well as the development of software.

Recently, SCJ also set up a sole proprietorship called “Kings Ave”, described as providing corporate training services, motivational courses and personal development workshops. However, MHA said that that entity is also a front, to lease a property for use as a “temple”.

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