Auckland woman recruited to South Korean religious sect Shincheonji sounds warning about its recruitment techniques

Lee Man-hee, leader of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, speaks during a press conference at a facility of the church in Gapyeong on March 2, 2020.
Lee Man-hee, leader of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, speaks during a press conference at a facility of the church in Gapyeong on March 2, 2020. Photo credit: Reuters

By Katie Doyle of RNZ

A woman who spent years in a South Korean religious sect operating in Auckland is warning others of its fraudulent recruitment techniques.

Shincheonji Church of Jesus has been described as a doomsday cult and is led by a man, Lee Man-hee, claiming to be the 'promised pastor' mentioned in the bible.

The woman said she was introduced to it through a person who she first thought was a friend looking to explore their faith.

But the woman, whose identity RNZ has agreed to protect, said she now believed the person was trying to recruit her into Shincheonji.

"The friend that I met at uni appeared normal and did not have any indication at all that she was Christian, or she is Christian, or that she is part of the cult," the woman said.

"But then afterwards, she began to express interest in growing her faith."

She was invited to a worship night, and later joined bible study classes with the friend which were held multiple times a week.

The woman said each class comprised about eight people; four newbies and four existing members pretending to be new recruits.

At first the lessons were fairly normal, she said, talking about God's love and how to share it.

But they soon descended into talk of the end-times, which talk of the return of Jesus Christ.

"They were beginning to teach the idea that the Spirit of Jesus is in a person and this person is symbolised in the Bible as a mountain, Mount Zion," she said.

"So they were teaching us to prepare for this mountain. They were encouraging us not to tell our friends and families what we were doing. And that lying was okay."

"And to remove ourselves from earthly temptation, so they encouraged us to socialise with God-fearing people."

Concerns raised privately with other members would mysteriously become the topic of future lessons and were shot down as being 'out-of-line' with the Bible.

The woman has now left Shincheonji and wants to warn others about it.

Pastor Steve Worsley from the Mount Albert Baptist Church in Auckland was equally concerned and said recruiters had been sneaking into church services.

"They target middle or bigger sized churches where they can slip in and pretend to be a congregation member," he said.

"So they just come to church and they just look like anyone else, and you know, befriend people there ... and from there, they invite people to the group."

He was contacted at least once a month by people suffering relationship breakdowns because of Shincheonji.

Pastor Worsley said he didn't believe Shincheonji affected a lot of people, but said the effects of it were awful.

"I've seen marriages break up... I've seen people advised to split up from their partner, to lie to their families."

Emeritus Professor of History, Peter Lineham, said people who joined Shincheonji tended to be a little naive, idealistic and had a small group of friends.

"And so Shincheonji movement not only offered the key to the bible through the teachings of Lee Man-hee, but also a sense of identity and placement and absorption in a loving and caring group, so long as you remain faithful to the group."

Professor Lineham said the most worrying aspect about Shincheonji was the loss of outside bearing people inside the sect experienced.

Pastor Steve Worsley said people needed to be alert to Shincheonji's recruitment techniques.

He said if someone offered a person the opportunity to attend a bible study group - but was cagey about the church name or denomination - it was best to steer clear.

Shincheonji in Auckland could not be reached for comment.