"Shincheonji" the new "plague spreaders": history of a modern religious persecution

by Silvio Calzolari — Disasters and calamities seem to be the most overwhelming evidence of the precariousness of the human condition, of the fragility of societies and of any cultural construction. A calamity is a situation of extreme criticality that occurs when a potentially destructive and dangerous agent strikes a population that is caught in a situation of great vulnerability. Disasters and calamities cause a sense of insecurity and terror. But how do we react to external and sometimes invisible factors, as in the case of epidemics that can suddenly strike everything that seems to guarantee our protection and security (family, home, society)?

The causes and cures of an epidemic are not easily identified, and the perceptual invisibility of the virus can easily become cognitive blindness. Anxiety, the real nightmare of contamination, fear, the terror of the invisible enemy, and ignorance can lead us to endemic forms of collective panic. And if bad information and speculation are added to these, the result we will have is chaos. In these emergency conditions we can often see a real drift in mass psychology that can lead to the institutionalization of discrimination and violence.

Often these crisis situations give rise to the search for a "scapegoat", which certainly does not solve the problem but provides an explanation, albeit fanciful, for the negative events. In this way, in the European Middle Ages, the myth of the plague spreaders arose, who voluntarily spread the contagion by means of ointments applied to doorposts or dust sprinkled on the victims' clothes.

This is what happened especially between the years 1321-1390 (do you remember the great plague of 1348-49 described by Giovanni Boccaccio in the pages placed as an introduction to the first day of the Decameron?). The Jews, accused of spreading the plague, were persecuted and killed (the massacres of Strasbourg and Cologne). The same delirium was resumed by Nazi propaganda in 1941 when the rumor was spread that the Polish Jews were the cause of the spread of a typhus epidemic that had caused numerous victims in Central Europe.

In modern times, the myth of the plague spreader has resurfaced with the spread of Spanish fever, AIDS, Ebola or polio. In 2012, in Pakistan and Nigeria, a large number of volunteers administering polio vaccines were accused of being plague spreader paid by the U.S. government to sterilize young Muslims. Many of those young doctors were slaughtered by Islamic extremists

Recently, the term plague spreader  has been joined by the more neutral term "patient zero", indicating those who, as carriers of diseases, do not infect voluntarily but risk infecting others. But even the search for "patients zero" can sometimes degenerate into a real witch hunt. And this is exactly what is happening in South Korea where the members of a new religious movement, the "Shincheonji" ("New Heaven and New Earth; that is, the Church of Jesus and the Temple of the Tabernacle of Testimony"), in the international hysteria caused by the spread of the so-called "Coronavirus" (Covid-19), have become real scapegoats.

In some South Korean newspapers (and the news was taken up by the media of many other countries), the members of "Shincheonji", a marginal religious movement of Christian inspiration, who in reality are, like many of their fellow countrymen, the victims of the contagion, were described as "affiliated with a secret apocalyptic cult" and unconscious (in the most benevolent hypothesis) or devious spreaders of the virus. It was to be expected that sooner or later someone would blame the spread of the contagion to some religious movement considered dangerous and hastily labeled as a "culy". It was only a matter of time. And, punctually, the accusation arrived.

But no wonder, after all there is nothing new under the sun. Disinformation has always existed and has always been used in every way by regimes around the world to reassure, blandish and manipulate what is instead under everyone's eyes but has been and is difficult to govern.

In the case of the spread of the "Coronavirus", the South Korean government seems to have behaved with a certain lightness by blocking entry from China with great delay and only when the epidemic had already spread everywhere. Probably, in order to divert public attention from that failure, an attempt was made to mix, in a false alchemy, the objective truth with the political needs of the moment (in South Korea political elections are approaching on April 15), identifying in the church of "Shincheonji", a "scapegoat".

In the information disseminated by many South Korean media, the truth of the facts and the reconstruction of the events seem to clash with an almost insurmountable wall of disinformation aimed at delegitimizing any other autonomous and independent opinion

From this point of view, Professor Massimo Introvigne did well, in his "Newsletter of CESNUR" on February 28, to denounce the defamatory campaign against the church of "Shincheonji" underway in South Korea. As Introvigne writes, "Shincheonji", which in recent years had experienced an extraordinary expansion in Korea, has long been attacked by some politicians and members of other religious groups and has become an excellent "scapegoat" on which to lay the blame for the spread of the "Coronavirus". What better plague spreaders if not the members of a movement considered a "dangerous cult", an "apocalyptic cult" and famous for its secrecy in disclosing the names of its affiliates.

So, instead of being self-critical for not having immediately closed the borders and blocked the entry from China since the first news of the contagion, some members of the South Korean government and politicians close to rival religious groups, through the regime's media, have accused the members of "Shincheonji" of having infected the citizens of Daegu (one of the headquarters of the movement) on their return from a trip to Wuhan, China, where they had gone for the opening of a church

I recall that Daegu is three hundred kilometers southwest of Seoul and that the Chinese city of Wuhan is the place from which the "Coronavirus" has spread. The contagion is said to have occurred because some members of the movement (including a 61-year-old woman called "patient 31" and described as a real plague spreader) carried out their religious services without any protection (masks and gloves) and without warning the citizens of Daegu that they were ill. The news that one or more of the followers of "Shincheonji" were the plague spreaders bounced all over East Asia (the South China Morning Post, an English-language daily newspaper in Hong Kong, reported on February 27/28/29). Then, with a technique of disinformation dear to a certain type of journalism, in South Korea, interviews with ex-followers of the religious movement (only those who agreed in condemning the "Shincheonji") and some relatives of members of that Church (unhappy that their loved ones were devoted to that faith) were multiplied.

Some articles in the South China Morning Post (reporting news from South Korean newspapers and online sites) describe well how today "Shincheonji" is flooded with accusations coming from all sides, from different groups and individuals. And all the accusations, regardless of the reasons that generated them, invariably end up presenting that religious movement as a dark and disturbing plot. Also according to the South China Morning Post, an online post detailed the group's alleged plans to infiltrate other churches and religious movements in order to destroy them from within. And a pastor of one of these churches is said to have learned from an "informant who is a member of Shincheonji that the leaders of that movement had given orders to spread the Coronavirus to other religious groups" (South China Morning Post, 28/02/2020, "Coronavirus: In South Korea, mounting anger over Shincheonji Church"). In short, the news that some members of the "Shincheonji" would go incognito to visit the churches of other religious movements to spread the contagion has made the rounds of the web in South Korea and even if it is only a rumor without any foundation has become a real fact.

It is very likely that the South Korean regime's media used "Shincheonji" as a "scapegoat" to protect a global national image. I have previously discussed a certain type of "journalism" that manipulates information and facts. That "journalism" uses a technique well known to scholars of human behavior: people's ways of acting and thinking correspond to codified psychological logics, on which the tools of persuasion leverage to succeed in conditioning the behavior and opinions of individuals. For scholars of mass communication, this logic is known as "the principle of social proof": something is right and true for us if others also consider it to be so. In other words, the opinion and behavior of the people around us automatically influence our judgment and opinion. In this way the criterion used to prove a news "true" is not based on the actual "truthfulness of the event" but only on the fact that it is considered as such by other members of the community. Thus, in just a few days, for a large part of the South Korean public opinion, conditioned by the supposed authority of some journalists, complacent doctors and politicians, and by the emphasis of the media that cried conspiracy, the members of the "Shincheonji" became for all intents and purposes the only plague spreaders that propagated the epidemic, and more than half a million people signed an online petition for that religious movement to be disbanded.

With the spread of the "Coronavirus," South Korean society has thus been driven to believe that "Shincheonji" is “some sort of enemy to be exposed”, a secret society "that would embody the worst of all forms of religion”. But this should not surprise us. “Shincheonji" is not the first movement in history to become the object of such defamation and dramatization. And here, perhaps, the surprises begin. By analyzing the events and cross-referencing the sources, "Bitter Winter, A Magazine on Religious Liberty and Human Rights in China" has hypothesized that the persecution of some religious minorities in China (but also in Korea) is not only due to the rivalry of some rival church, the slander of some opposing political leader or the emphasis of a certain type of journalism that manipulates information.

They would only be the amplifiers of a message elaborated by some anti-religious groups of power, which could be the real creators of the lies, then spread by a certain press. Someone may think: "It is only a fanciful hypothesis! Here again the myth of the conspiracy resurfaces!"

But the hypothesis seems to become a certainty, when the same Bitter Winter, in many of its articles, as in the one of May 9, 2018 (“Report on Israel Sheds Light on How China uses International Anti-cultists") has highlighted how the Chinese Communist Party is linked to an international "anti-cult" network aimed at defaming religious minorities: "... while in the early days the international anti-cultist network represented only private interests, in the 21st century it is increasingly connected with regimes that persecute religious minorities and rely on it to justify persecution."

And again, Bitter Winter reported on how Korean anti- cultists collaborated with the Chinese Communist Party in organizing fake "spontaneous demonstrations" against refugees from The Church of Almighty God seeking asylum in South Korea.

The report cited by Bitter Winter's article, edited by HRWF (Human Rights Without Frontiers), denounces the links between the Chinese Communist Party and the international anti-cult network headed by the French FECRIS and its vice-president Alexander Dvorkin, a Russian Orthodox ex-priest who owes his notoriety to the activities of repression of "non-Orthodox" religions in Russia and to the support of the repression operated by the Chinese government against any religion "not authorized" by the party.

Recent events in Korea could demonstrate how strong and influential are these international anti-cult movements always ready to justify the persecution of members of religious movements perceived as enemies and carriers of social disintegration.

But let us go back to the events of our "Shincheonji". With the invisible threat of contagion spreading more and more, fear in Korea has become widespread and deep, and the statements of church spokesmen aimed at calming the souls have been worth little, and it seems to be worth little that the "Shincheonji", trying to contain the virus, is cooperating with the "Korean Center for Disease Control" (KCDC), which in recent days has provided the government with a complete list of its Korean members and has had them tested, at its own expense, for the presence of the virus.

In order to cast a shadow over these gestures of goodwill, the Governor of Gyeonggi Province (South Korea), Lee Jae Myung, at the end of February, hastened to recount in a radio interview with the South Korean radio station TBS, how that religious group had initially been careful not to cooperate with the authorities.

Indeed, "Shincheonji" had not initially handed over to the health authorities its directory of members and lists of contacts. That delay cost "Shincheonji" dearly because all the Korean branches of that movement were closed (according to the media to be "sanitized").

On March 2, 2020 it was reported that the South Korean government had requested criminal proceedings against senior members of "Shincheonji". On that same day Lee Man-hee, the leader of the movement, in a dramatic speech on South Korean TV, was forced to publicly apologize, on his knees, for the delays in the delivery of the lists of members of his movement. Delay that according to Park Wen-soon, the Mayor of Seoul, caused the death of many people, because preventive measures would have saved many lives.

But fear and hostility towards "Shincheonji" is increasing not only in South Korea but also in other Asian countries. A website of the Singapore Government Agency (mha.gov.sg. 28/02/2020) raised the alarm not only about the real possibility that members of "Shincheonji" could transmit the contagion but also about the proselytizing activity that the movement would have carried out in that city-state. The same site went on to reveal, with curious thoughtfulness and concern, how the "Shincheonji", in the months leading up to the outbreak, had sought to register a company in Singapore under the name "Heavenly Culture, World Peace and Restoration of Light" (HWPL), and had incorporated a number of front companies (such as Spasie Pte Ltd.) and an enterprise called "Kings Ave", to: "Provide services, do corporate training and hold seminars for personal development, but which would actually be used to rent property to be used as a temple."

Immediately after the spread of the epidemic, the Singaporean government, on the basis of very rapid investigations, found that "the local chapter of Shincheonji had used deceptive means of proselytism in order to infiltrate other religious groups" and, after having blocked all activities of that movement, decided to act to ban its worship

What can I say? This is very strange in a city like Singapore that is open to religious movements of all traditions (with a few exceptions for the "Jehovah's Witnesses" who refuse to perform compulsory military service).

Article 15 of Singapore's Constitutional Charter guarantees everyone the right "to profess, practice and spread their religion", even if the Minister of the Interior, in the name of "maintaining religious harmony" throughout the country, can (through a law passed in 1990) issue restraining orders against those who incite hostility towards members of other religious groups, or for subversive activities or those linked to terrorism.

But what exactly is "Shincheonji"?

Until a few months ago, this South Korean religious movement, of Christian inspiration, was known only to a few scholars (in Italy one of the first to speak about it was Massimo Introvigne, see: "Shincheonji", in: "World Religions and Spirituality", wrldrels.org/2019/08/29); today, however, thanks to the "Coronavirus" epidemic, it is on the pages of newspapers all over the world. Let's see if we can give some summary information.

The panorama of religious movements that have arisen from the mid-1900s and in 2000 in South Korea is extremely complex and varied. Many are of Buddhist and Taoist inspiration, sometimes syncretized with autonomous forms of popular religiosity based on local Shamanism. Others, and they are very numerous, are of Christian inspiration. The new Christian religious movements are almost all derived from Protestantism which penetrated into Korea, brought by Americans and other Western missionaries, around 1880. The first Protestant Church was established by Horace Newton Allen in 1884. A famous movement related to Protestantism of mystical inspiration was the "Wonsak Sinhaksan", founded by Baek Nam-ju who was influenced by the thought of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) and Sundar Singh (1889-1929), a Christian missionary of Indian origin famous for his prophecies and mysterious death on the slopes of the Himalayas. Then, in the city of Cheolsan, Kim Sung Do (1882-1944), founded the Church of "Seongju" ("Holy Lord") which spread the belief that Korea would be the place of the second coming of Christ.

After the Korean War, in the late 1950s, Naa Oong Moung (1914-2009), a Methodist Christian from Seoul, managed and directed a famous mystical movement called Yong Moon San, the "Mountain of Prayers." Naa Oong Moung claimed that Hananim (The sky deity of Korean Shamanism, also called "Haneullim", or "Hanumin") was to be identified with the God of the Bible, and proclaimed himself as one of the two witnesses or "olive trees" mentioned in the book of Revelation (Revelation 11:3).

Followers of that movement claimed that their leader would never die and that the end of the world would come with the last of his sermons. Some branches of the "Prayer Mountain" movement became the "Olive Tree Church" founded by Park Tae Son (1915-1990) in 1955, also known as the "Jesus Christ Congregation Revival Association of Korea".

Park, was a member of the Presbyterian Church, when in 1955, in Seoul, during a religious meeting, received a vision of a "rain of water and fire coming down from the sky" and was granted the gift of being able to heal the sick. His healing prayers attracted many people and the wrath of his Presbyterian community, which expelled him in 1956. In the '60s of the last century, the "Church of the Olive Tree" experienced a huge spread: it far exceeded one million followers distributed in over three hundred congregations. Many of them lived in agricultural and industrial communities outside of Seoul and produced an infinite number of "Zion" branded products: from blankets to underwear, from sweets and candies to fake flowers. The movement's churches, spread throughout South Korea, were instantly recognizable because they were painted white with crimson crosses atop crenellated towers.

Park also claimed to be one of the "olive trees" described in the book of Revelation (or perhaps both in one person); moreover, in connection with the "Book of Isaiah" (41:21) he proclaimed himself "the Righteous One of the East" and elected Korea as the spiritual leader of the world.

Upon Park's death, the church split into several groups that were more or less rivals. The largest group, which tried to continue to transmit the teachings of the master, took the name "Church of Heavenly Father" or in Koeran "Cheonbu-gyo. Another famous group was that of the "Altar of Victory" ("Seung Nije Dan"); from the dissolution of the "Church of the Olive Tree" would be born also the "Shincheonji".

In fact, the new movement was founded by Lee Man-hee (1931-), who was a follower of Park, synthesizing the teachings of the "Church of the Olive Tree", with those of the "Tabernacle Temple" (or: "Temple Tent"), founded in 1966 by Yoo Jae Yul (1949-). The "Shincheonji" Church was founded on March 14, 1984, in the city of "Gwacheong", in the South Korean province of "Gyeonggi". 1984 would be the year in which, in the words of Lee Man-hee, "the universe would complete its orbit and return to its point of origin". According to Lee's prophecies in 1984 human history would have known a new beginning.

The story of "Shincheonji" is quite complex, but I will try to tell it in brief. Lee Man-hee, after having actively participated in the work of the "Church of the Olive Tree", in 1969 left that group to join the movement founded by Yoo Jae Yul. According to Yoo Jael Yul, Jesus would have spoken in parables using a secret language.

Only the founder of the "Temple of the Tabernacle" would have been able to interpret the cryptic language of the Lord, combining the words of the Gospels with verses (called "secret pairs") of which he alone was aware. The time of the end of the world was approaching and from the uncertainty of the moment would come the need to interpret the words of Jesus in the correct way. From these revelations, Yoo Jae Yul became convinced that the Lord had prepared, for him and his faithful, a secret room in the heart of the mountain "Chung Kye", on the outskirts of Seoul, as a refuge during the final battle of "Armageddon". The chosen ones, sanctified, would become the new "Kings of the World". The "Tabernacle Temple" movement enjoyed some success, but after an accusation of fraud, Yoo Jae Yul renounced leadership of the group, donated all his assets to the Presbyterian Church, and retired to private life in the United States.

"Shincheonji" is one of the many apocalyptic movements that came out of the "Temple of the Tabernacle." Like Yoo Jae Yul, Lee affirms that the Bible and the Gospels would be composed of parables and secret verses, and that in order to be saved it is necessary to understand the exact meaning of those passages. It is not by chance that the founder of "Shincheonji" called himself the "Promised Pastor", the only one able to provide a perfect reading of the Christian Holy Scriptures, but sometimes he spoke about himself claiming to be the new Messiah, or the herald of God.

According to his teachings Jesus would not be God, the Holy Spirit would only be a "coven of angels" and the Church of Rome would be the "new Babylon". The "New Heaven and the "New Earth" (which appear in the name of the movement to indicate the Garden of Eden; Isaiah 65:17 and 66:22) will arise in Korea after the final battle of Armageddon (which will take place between the 20th and 21st century). When the number of the saved will be 144,000 (Revelation,7,2-8; 14,1-5), the era of "Shincheonji" will begin, right from the city of "Gwacheong". At that time, the souls of 144,000 holy martyrs, after waiting in heaven, will rise in spiritual bodies and reign with the 144,000 faithful (divided into 12 tribes) sanctified and saved from physical and spiritual death by Lee's teachings. Saved from physical death as well, because Lee repeatedly stated that he would never die and that his followers would share in his immortality.

The "Shincheonji", in time, has exceeded the number of 144,000 members; but according to Lee, that number will never really be exceeded because some believers will betray and others will go to found apostate cults. Recently the "Shincheonji" has branched out even outside of South Korea: in the United States (Los Angeles,1996), in Berlin (2000), in Cape Town (South Africa, 2012)and in Wuhan (China, 2019) from where the "Coronavirus" epidemic started.

Grayson, James Huntley, “Korea: A religious History”, Routledge Curzon, London, 2002

Lee, Man-hee, “The Creation of Heaven and Earth”, Shincheonji Press, Seoul, Republic of Korea, 2009

Lee, Pilchan, “Shincheonji: What is the Problem of Revelation Interpretation?”, New Wave Plus, Seoul, Republic of Korea, 2018

Lee, Seung Yun, “The Genealogy of Cults: The Tabernacle Temple Denomination”, in: “Modern Religion”, April, 2011, pp. 138-143