21 members of unregistered Singapore chapter of South Korean 'cult' arrested

Spasie Enrichment, a front company incorporated by the Singapore chapter of the South Korean church, known as the Shincheonji Church. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

SINGAPORE - Twenty-one men and women from the unregistered local chapter of a secretive South Korean church were arrested for allegedly being members of an unlawful society, said the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) on Wednesday (Nov 11).

The nine men, aged between 22 and 31 years old, and 12 women, aged between 21 and 49 years old, were arrested by police officers from the Criminal Investigation Department on Monday, said the MHA.

Preliminary investigations revealed that they had allegedly re-engaged in activities connected to the unregistered local chapter of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony, known as SCJ, which has been called a cult in several countries.

Another group of nine women, aged between 22 and 52, and two men, aged 23 and 36 years old, are assisting the police with investigations.

Founded by South Korean national Lee Man-hee in 1984, the church has been accused of being a cult in several countries due to its unorthodox teachings, said the MHA.

Mr Lee allegedly regards all other churches and pastors as belonging to Satan. He has also claimed to be the second coming of Christ who will take 144,000 people to heaven with him on the Day of Judgment, said the ministry.

Mr Lee has also claimed to be the only person who can interpret the Bible, while SCJ teaches that it is acceptable to use deceit and lies if it serves God's purposes, said the MHA.

"It has been accused of infiltrating and disrupting established Korean churches by using deception and secrecy to trick people into becoming involved with them," it added.

In February, five South Korean nationals who held key positions in the local chapter were repatriated from Singapore and the group's front entities were dissolved, following the MHA's investigations earlier this year into the group's activities, said the ministry on Wednesday.

The MHA had earlier investigated the group's activities in February for using deceptive recruitment methods, similar to the SCJ in South Korea, to exert a controlling influence over Christian youngsters and young adults in Singapore, and to conceal its existence from family members and non-SCJ contacts.

Members of the local chapter were also issued warnings to cease further involvement in the church's activities, or face further action from the authorities, said the MHA.

"In spite of the actions taken, the local SCJ chapter has resumed its activities covertly, under the direction of its South Korean parent chapter," it added.

"As such, CID is investigating members of the local SCJ chapter for potential offences under the Societies Act."

Anyone convicted of being a member of an unlawful society may be jailed up to three years or fined up to $5,000, or both.

"MHA will not allow members of unlawful societies or persons associated with them to threaten Singapore's public safety, peace and good order," the ministry said.

In February, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said the MHA was looking to ban the activities of the local chapter of SCJ. The church in South Korea was at the centre of that country's coronavirus outbreak.

Mr Shanmugam had told reporters that the group, which has fewer than 100 members here, was being investigated under "national security legislation".

He added that while people in Singapore are free to believe in any religion and to practise it the way that they want, the Government will step in when "it crosses the line into criminality or potential public security issues".

Shincheonji church was at centre of first outbreak in S. Korea

During the initial stages of the coronavirus outbreak in South Korea earlier this year, the Shincheonji Church of Jesus attracted intense criticism after reports emerged that its members were uncooperative and hampered the health authorities' efforts to trace and contain the virus.

The church - which claims to have about 300,000 followers around the world, including in Wuhan, China - was at the centre of the initial Covid-19 outbreak in South Korea, which saw a sudden outbreak in February in connection with a 61-year-old woman who was a member of the church and later labelled a "super spreader" by South Korean health officials.

Despite developing symptoms such as sore throat and fever, the woman twice refused to test for the coronavirus and attended the church twice in Daegu with more than 1,000 congregants, where they worshipped in close proximity for hours.

She also reportedly argued with a health official for an hour before agreeing to take a coronavirus test, and tested positive on Feb 18.

Infection figures in Daegu, which has a population of about 2.5 million, later increased dramatically.

By late February, the church accounted for at least 122 confirmed cases of the virus in the country, out of a total of more than 200 - a sixfold increase from a week earlier when the woman was infected.

Six months later, more than 5,000 church members were infected, making up 36 per cent of the total Covid-19 cases in South Korea in August.

The church's founder Lee Man-hee, 88, was arrested that month for allegedly withholding information about the church's members and gatherings from contact tracers.

So far, South Korea has recorded nearly 28,000 Covid-19 cases and 487 deaths.

More than 25,000 people have recovered so far.

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