SINGAPORE: The founder of City Harvest Church (CHC) apologised to its members during his first appearance at the church in its Suntec premises on Saturday (Aug 24).
Pastor Kong Hee, who turned 55 a day before, was released from prison on Thursday (Aug 22) after serving about two-thirds of his three-and-a-half years' jail sentence for his role in misappropriating S$50 million of church funds.
Mr Kong first appeared with his wife Ho Yeow Sun to loud applause from the packed church. He later took the stage and told the congregation that he was sorry for "everything that has happened".
"This is the only time you’ll hear from me for quite a while. Having been away from 2017, it feels really surreal to be here," he said. "I’m so grateful for the opportunity to stand before you and to say today from the bottom of my heart that I am very sorry for everything that has happened.
"I was convicted by the court for criminal breach of trust. I have served my sentence and today I find myself humbled," said the pastor, who sported a shock of white hair.
"I want all of you to know that I’m so sorry, so sorry, for any pain, anxiety, disappointment or grief that you have suffered because of me," he said. "The last few years have just been very difficult and painful for me and for everyone involved."
He asked the church for "some time to readjust back into a normal life again" and said his immediate priority was to reconnect with his family.
"I have missed out on a significant part of my son’s growing-up years with the long-drawn court trial and subsequent incarceration," he said. "My absence has also pained my parents deeply. Now, they are already in their 90s and I wish to be a filial son, to be around to take care of them."
READ: From legal battles to failed escape bid: The twists and turns of Chew Eng Han’s City Harvest case
The church also commended his wife, also known as Sun Ho, 47, for "standing firm all these years".
Before his speech, the church was told not to clap for him as Mr Kong had requested for them not to.
The thousands of members whooped and cheered when he first appeared with his wife holding his arm, shaking hands of those in the front row before taking a seat near the centre of the stage.
Churchgoers told CNA after the service that they were happy to see Mr Kong back in church and that they welcome him.
Said Mr Don Macapinlac, who has been attending the church for 15 years: “We are very happy for him.”
The 52-year-old, who works at a travel agency, said the members knew the intentions of the church, while those outside it had a “bias”.
Housewife Jane Yap, 48, who was there with her family of four, said it was “great” to have Mr Kong back in church.
"Actually we welcome him, we love him very much,” said the churchgoer of about 20 years.
“I was asking other members if he was coming tonight.”
“We are very happy for him to come back, we miss him a lot. We are all for his mission ... there’s nothing wrong that he did.”
READ: City Harvest case: Prosecution’s bid to reinstate longer jail terms rejected by Apex court
Mr Kong was released from Changi Prison in the late morning on Thursday, about two years and four months after surrendering at the State Courts to serve his sentence.
He had received a jail term along with five other church leaders: Sharon Tan, John Lam, Serina Wee, Tan Ye Peng and Chew Eng Han.
All have been released from prison except for Chew, who received an additional term after trying unsuccessfully to flee the country on a sampan.