SEOUL • A South Korean cult leader was convicted yesterday of the multiple rape of eight female followers - some of whom believed he was God - and jailed for 15 years.
Pastor Lee Jaerock's victims were "unable to resist as they were subject to the accused's absolute religious authority", Judge Chung Moon-sung told the Seoul Central District Court.
Religious devotion is widespread in technologically advanced South Korea, with 44 per cent of people identifying themselves as believers.
Most belong to mainstream churches, which can accumulate wealth and influence with tens of thousands of followers donating as much as 10 per cent of their income.
But fringe groups are also widespread and some have been implicated in fraud, brainwashing, coercion and other behaviour associated with cults worldwide.
Lee, 75, set up the Manmin Central Church in Guro, once a poor area of Seoul, with just 12 followers in 1982. It has now grown to 130,000 members, with a spotlight-filled auditorium, sprawling headquarters and a website replete with claims of miracle cures.
Three of Lee's followers went public earlier this year, as South Korea was swept with a wave of #MeToo accusations, describing how he had summoned each of them to an apartment and raped them.
"I was unable to turn him down," one of them told South Korean television.
The Manmin Central Church is all about worshipping the pastor Lee Jaerock.
MS KIM YU-SUN, who was a member for 20 years.
"He was more than a king. He was God," added the woman, who had been a church member since she was a child.
Eight women laid criminal complaints, and the court found that Lee raped and molested them "tens of times" over a long period.
"Through his sermons, the accused has indirectly or directly suggested he is the holy spirit, deifying himself," the judge said. The victims believed Lee was "a divine being who wields divine power".
Lee stood with his eyes closed as the judgment was read, showing no emotion.
He denied the charges, and his lawyers accused the women of lying to seek vengeance after being excommunicated for breaching church rules.
Around 100 followers filled the courtroom, some of them sighing quietly. But former congregants denounced Lee outside.
"The Manmin Central Church is all about worshipping the pastor Lee Jaerock," said Ms Kim Yu-sun, who was a member for 20 years.
South Korea has proven fertile ground for religious groups with strong, unambiguous ideologies that offered comfort and salvation, which appealed strongly during times of deep uncertainty.
A 2015 government poll showed 28 per cent of South Koreans saying they belong to Christian churches, while 16 per cent called themselves Buddhist.
But according to Mr Park Hyung-tak, head of the Korea Christian Heresy Research Institute, around two million people are followers of cults.
On his own website, Lee says God has "anointed me with His power", but his church has been condemned as heretical by mainstream Christian groups, partly because of its claims to miracle healing.
In 1987, 32 members of a South Korean apocalyptic group called Odaeyang were found dead at their headquarters after an apparent murder-suicide pact, including its leader, who was under police investigation for embezzlement.