MHA looking to ban activities of Singapore chapter of church at centre of South Korea's coronavirus outbreak

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The Daegu branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus on Feb 27, 2020. Five South Korean nationals and two Singaporeans are helping the Ministry of Home Affairs with its investigations into the church's activities in Singapore. PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE - The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) is looking to ban activities of the unregistered Singapore chapter of a secretive church at the centre of South Korea's coronavirus outbreak.

Five South Korean nationals and two Singaporeans are helping MHA with its investigations, the ministry said on Friday (Feb 28).

The South Korean church, which has been called a cult, is known as the Shincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony (SCJ). Out of South Korea's 2,300-odd coronavirus cases, 840 are linked to the church.

MHA said that it intends to take action to ban the activities of the church in Singapore.

Speaking to reporters on Friday about the ministry's move, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said that the group, which he said has fewer than 100 people here, is 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".

"There was reason to believe that people were being misled and defrauded into certain actions, and the cult was behind it even though they put up front companies to carry out their actions," said Mr Shanmugam.

He added that the threat to Singapore currently is not high because their activities were picked up "fairly quickly".

"But we think the activities would be inimical to the broader public if (the group is) allowed to carry on," said Mr Shanmugam.

Founded by South Korean national Lee Man Hee in 1984, the church allegedly regards all other churches and pastors as belonging to Satan, said the ministry.

Mr Lee has claimed to be the second coming of Christ and will take 144,000 people to heaven with him on the Day of Judgment, according to testimonies of former church members.

"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," said MHA.

"SCJ teaches that it is acceptable to use deceit and lies if it serves God's purposes. It has been accused of infiltrating and disrupting established Korean churches by using deception and secrecy to trick people into becoming involved with them."

Based on its investigations, MHA said the Singapore chapter of the church has used "similar deceptive methods", such as using front entities to target Christian youth and young adults to join their group.

"A controlling influence is then exerted over these young members, requiring them to comply with strict instructions to conceal the local existence of SCJ and their involvement with it," said the ministry.

"Members are not allowed to contact one another, verify teachings with other churches, or inform their families of their involvement."

MHA said its investigations started as early as February last year, when the local chapter of the church tried to register a company in Singapore under the name of Heavenly Culture, World Peace and Restoration of Light.

The ministry added that it had raised objections to the registration of the company as it believed that the company would be used as a front for the church.

Investigations later found that the church had previously incorporated another front company, known as Spasie Pte Ltd, which describes itself as offering consultancy services and the development of software.

The church also recently set up a sole proprietorship called Kings Ave, described as providing corporate training services, motivational courses and personal development workshops. However, this is also "a front, to lease property for use as a 'temple'", said MHA.

MHA said it decided to accelerate its investigations into the local chapter of the church because of reports linking the church's practices to the coronavirus outbreak cluster in Daegu, South Korea.

"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," said MHA. "However, interviews with members of SCJ in Singapore, who have been called up so far, found that they have not been in recent physical contact with persons from the Daegu cluster."

Four of the South Koreans currently assisting in investigations entered Singapore before the outbreak of the virus in Daegu and Cheongdo.

The fifth person came into Singapore on Feb 21 but the Ministry of Health's checks indicate that she is well, said MHA.

According to records on the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority's website, one of the front companies for the church's Singapore chapter, Spasie Pte Ltd, was incorporated on Dec 8, 2016. It has two listed directors and a secretary, all Singaporeans; and two shareholders, a South Korean and a South African.

Meanwhile, the group's second front company, King's Ave, was incorporated on Dec 31 last year, and lists a Singapore citizen as the sole proprietor. It has since ceased registration.

Spasie's office, located in Ubi, was closed when The Straits Times visited on Friday evening.

However, two staff from a neighbouring unit said there would be loud music coming from the office, particularly on weekends. But that stopped when they complained to management about the noise.

One of them said that he would see young people, aged about 18 to 20, entering and leaving the place. "We don't really know what they do. They are quite secretive and wouldn't say much," he added.

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