SINGAPORE: It started as it often does – someone approaching you as you make your way to the MRT station. Asking innocuously if you are a Christian or if you’d like to know more or meet someone who can help deepen your understanding of the faith.
For Fiona*, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, it was this exact scenario that eventually saw her going for meetings with a group linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony (SCJ).
The Korean church has been at the centre of a storm in South Korea because it has registered at least half of all COVID-19 infections there.
Last Friday (Feb 28), MHA revealed that the church had a local chapter and the ministry is investigating its activities here.
The local university graduate, who is wary of giving her age, is in her 20s. She says she met two men at Dhoby Ghaut station one Sunday afternoon in late December last year. They told her they were collecting information for research about Christians in Singapore. They sounded authentic and so Fiona, a Christian herself, decided to accept their invitation to meet.
When Fiona told her friends about the encounter, they suggested that she take someone along with her. So her mother agreed to go with her for the first meeting on Jan 11.
During the course of their conversations, a man who called himself a pastor, dropped hints that he would like both Fiona and her mum to study the Bible with him.
“He made it sound as if I didn’t know the (Bible) well enough,” Fiona said, so she agreed and dropped him a text a week later to arrange for lessons. And thus began her involvement with the church where she began attending regular meetings, without her mum.
It was only on Mar 2 morning, after her dad sent her a news report about the Shincheonji Church, that Fiona realised what she had gotten herself into.
Reading the report, she found exact descriptions of activities she had experienced.
"(The students) are not allowed to exchange contacts, they are not allowed to bring their notes home, they are taught that deception and lies to do God’s will are okay,” Fiona said as her eyes widened. “And these three things were like, ‘oh my God, it’s what I’ve been taught’.”
BEHIND THE SHINCHEONJI CHURCH
Fiona’s account parallels what the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said of the group’s actions.
On Friday, the ministry announced that it was investigating the unregistered local chapter of the SCJ, a South Korean religious group that has been linked to the COVID-19 cluster in Daegu.
SCJ teaches that it is acceptable to use deceit and lies if it serves God’s purposes, said MHA in its media release. Members are also not allowed to contact one another, verify teachings with other churches, or inform families of their teachings.
The religious group has also been using front entities to target Christian youths and young members, while requiring them to comply strictly with instructions to conceal the local existence of the group and their involvement with it, MHA said.
Founded by South Korean national Lee Man-hee in 1984, the group has attracted accusations of being a cult in several countries due to its unorthodox teachings, MHA said. The leader 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, and SCJ allegedly regards all other churches and pastors as belonging to Satan,” the ministry said.
The religious group has more than 1,000 churches in South Korea and more than 240,000 members worldwide.
MHA believes there are fewer than 100 members in the local chapter, comprising both locals and foreigners.
Fiona began having one-on-one lessons with the pastor from mid-January. They usually met at food courts or fast food restaurants in City Hall or around neighbourhoods in the East. After their fifth meeting, she was asked to move to a group class with the rest of his students. Lessons would be held over the course of four months.
By Feb 10, she started classes with eight other people. The group met for two hours every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning at an office space inside an industrial building in Marymount.
READ: Shincheonji: The secretive sect in South Korea's COVID-19 outbreak
There were no signboards that indicated the church’s name, but Fiona did not think it was odd, assuming it was just a temporary space the group was renting for a few months to hold their activities.
Each class started off with them singing a Christian worship song, followed by prayers, then a lecture for an hour and a half - they often delved into the parables in the Bible - before ending off the session with discussions.
During these lessons, Fiona and her classmates found themselves confronting several unorthodox practices.
They were allowed to take notes but not allowed to take them home. Instead, the teachers kept their notebooks and only passed them out before each lesson. They were instructed not to disclose to anyone what they went through during these lessons. Bringing someone new to class was not allowed, as was asking fellow students how they got to know about these classes.
The teachers told the students that if they discussed what they learnt outside of the setting, it could jeopardise their understanding of the doctrine, Fiona recalled.
Then there were beliefs that raised suspicion: Followers have a “hidden knowledge” secret to others, and that it is perfectly fine to lie if it is done “in God’s will”. During one lesson, she was told to come up with a list of excuses to tell others if they asked her what she was doing with the group.
Fiona says she did not confide in anyone about what she was asked to do.
“I was uncomfortable but I agreed because they convinced me that what I was doing is God’s will and that in order to continue learning, I had to protect myself and my family and friends from being used to hinder me (from my faith),’’ she said.
SAVED BY A NEWS REPORT
Despite these red flags, Fiona kept going for the thrice-weekly gatherings. The teachers seemed genuine and sincere. She was also at a stage in her life where she wanted to know what “my purpose in life is”, she said.
Fiona, who recently graduated, was ready to hold off looking for a full-time job in order to attend all the weekday sessions when news about the church’s activities broke amid the COVID-19 situation.
After reading the report her dad sent, Fiona went online to read what former members from other countries had written about the church. Their experiences corroborated with hers. Confronted with these facts, she broke down and cried, overwhelmed by her feelings of betrayal and disappointment.
“I felt betrayed,” Fiona said of her anger towards the leaders. She had trusted the instructors - to the point of sharing her personal struggles with one of them.
She was also disappointed about the way she felt she was misled and yet, immensely relieved that she found out more about the group early into her involvement.
The religious group has suspended meetings on grounds of the coronavirus and because one of the teachers has to attend to “something urgent”, said Fiona. But she is never going back.
“I was searching for answers to Christianity and they seemed to have a lot of knowledge and the answers,’’ said Fiona. “I did find the practices abnormal but I continued because I trusted them – I trusted they were true servants of God.”
“I am hoping that by sharing in detail … my story will warn others to question the sources of what they believe in."