MHA investigating unregistered Singapore chapter of South Korean religious group Shincheonji

MHA investigating unregistered Singapore chapter of South Korean religious group Shincheonji

A woman wearing a mask to prevent contracting the coronavirus walks past a branch of the Shincheonj
A woman wearing a mask walks past a branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony in Daegu, South Korea Feb 21, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji)

SINGAPORE: The Singapore chapter of a South Korean religious group is being investigated by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), which intends to take action to “proscribe” the group’s activities here.

Five South Koreans and two Singaporeans are assisting with ongoing investigations into the unregistered local chapter of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony (SCJ), which is based in South Korea, said MHA in a press release on Friday (Feb 28).

The religious group has more than 1,000 churches in South Korea and more than 240,000 members worldwide.

Many of South Korea’s 2,337 COVID-19 cases are reportedly linked to SCJ’s churches in Daegu – the epicentre of the outbreak there.

READ: Shincheonji: The secretive sect in South Korea's COVID-19 outbreak

MHA said in response to queries from CNA that they believe there are fewer than 100 members in the local chapter, comprising both locals and foreigners. 

There is reason to believe that people were “misled and defrauded into certain actions”, and that the religious group was behind these activities “even though they put up front companies to carry out their actions”, said Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam on Friday.

The threat level “is not high” because it was picked up “fairly quickly", but the activities would be "inimical to the broader public" if allowed to carry on, he added. 

“People are entitled to believe in any religion or not believe in any religion and practice it in the way they want it,” said Mr Shanmugam. 

“However, when we think that it crosses the line into criminality or potential public security issues, then we will start looking at it.”

An MHA spokesperson told CNA that it was "first alerted to the local chapter of the SCJ when members tried to register a company here in February 2019".

"We are unable to comment further as investigations are still ongoing.  We will release more details in due course.”  

SCJ teaches that it is acceptable to use deceit and lies if it serves God’s purposes, said MHA in its release, adding that the group has been accused of being a cult in several countries.

“It has been accused of infiltrating and disrupting established Korean churches by using deception and secrecy to trick people into becoming involved with them,” said MHA.

Based on investigations, MHA believes the local SCJ chapter has used “similar deceptive recruitment methods”.

REGISTERED COMPANIES AS FRONTS

It has been using front entities to target Christian youths and young members and requiring them to comply strictly with instructions to conceal the local existence of the group and their involvement with it, the ministry said.

“Members are not allowed to contact one another, verify teachings with other churches, or inform families of their teachings,” MHA added.

Members of the local chapter had tried to register a company in Singapore under the name Heavenly Culture, World Peace and Restoration of Light in February 2019.

The ministry had raised security objections to the registration of the company, believing it was going to be used as a front for SCJ.

Investigations found SCJ had previously incorporated another front company called Spasie, which describes itself as offering consultancy services as well as development of software.

The religious group also set up a sole proprietorship called Kings Ave, described as providing corporate training services, motivational courses and personal development workshops.

“… That entity (Kings Ave) is also a front, to lease a property for use as a ‘temple’,” said MHA.

The ministry said it intends to take action to ban SCJ’s activities in Singapore.

When asked if SCJ has been involved in illegal activity in Singapore, Mr Shanmugam said that it is MHA’s view that there have been some actions “which have crossed the line”, with “possible criminality”. These are being investigated, he said. 

“Young people have been brought in, front companies have been used to mask the true identity of the organisation, and people have been brought in under false pretenses. 

“There are things that, I think, which were done, which shouldn't have been done,” he added.

NO PHYSICAL CONTACT WITH DAEGU CLUSTER

MHA’s investigations would have normally taken another “few weeks to conclude”, but the ministry decided to accelerate the investigations and consider earlier action when the COVID-19 situation "erupted".

This was because of reports linking the group’s actions to the COVID-19 cluster in Daegu.

READ: South Korea starts COVID-19 checks on more than 200,000 sect members

“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,” the ministry added.

Interviews with members of the SCJ in Singapore who have been called up so far show that they have not been in recent physical contact with people from the Daegu cluster.

Four of the South Koreans who are assisting investigations entered Singapore before the outbreak of the coronavirus in Daegu and Cheongdo in South Korea.

The fifth South Korean came into Singapore on Feb 21, but the Ministry of Health’s checks indicate that she is well.

WHAT IS THE SCJ?

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.

“Based on testimonies of former members, Lee has claimed to be the second coming of Christ, who would bring 144,000 people to Heaven with him on the Day of Judgement,” MHA said.

“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.”

Source: CNA/mi(hm)

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