Religious cult Shincheonji tries to recruit members at Auckland church

A secret ‘sect’ has taken to churches in Auckland to recruit new members through ‘deceptive’ tactics, a church leader has said.

Hangyul Cho, the associate pastor of Northcross Church on Auckland’s North Shore, said congregants and other pastors in Auckland have reported recent approaches to Shincheonji Church.

Do you know more about Shincheonji? Email [email protected]

Shincheonji Church of Jesus, also known as Mount Zion, is a secret movement founded in 1984 by 91-year-old Lee Man-Hee in South Korea.

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The group is known for infiltrating churches and university groups using deceptive recruitment techniques and has been active in Aotearoa for several years.

Their teachings have a strong focus on the end of the world and they have been criticized for brainwashing people and breaking up families.

The group’s founder, Lee Man-Hee, professes to be the messenger of Christ and is called “God’s Advocate” by followers.

Cho said recently that a few people told him that they were approached by Shincheonji members after church services.

“I have spoken with other pastors and our own congregation and found that many people have recently been approached to take Bible courses – four people this week have been in contact.

“People have told us that they use their tactic of befriending and inviting people to study the Bible without mentioning where they are from.”

Shincheonji members often asked young church members to attend groups to introduce them to worship, Cho said.

“We decided that we had to address this during a service and teach people about the sects and how Shincheonji works.

“No one who joins a cult thinks they want to join a cult, we are all vulnerable to it to some degree.”

Although Shincheonji was founded in South Korea, Cho said the members don’t target Korean Kiwis, but rather anyone in their twenties.

Peter Lineham, professor emeritus of religious history, recently met members of Shincheonji at their church in Auckland and said the encounter was “curious”.

Emeritus Professor of Religious History Peter Lineham recently met with members of Shincheonji.  (File photo)

Chris Skelton / Stuff

Emeritus Professor of Religious History Peter Lineham recently met with members of Shincheonji. (File photo)

“It’s important to note that something has changed recently – it’s unprecedented for them to come out publicly and invite someone like me to their church. I think it has to do with what happened in Korea during Covid.

Shincheonji was linked to one of South Korea’s biggest Covid-19 outbreaks in 2020 and the group had to hand over the names of all members for contact tracing.

“It’s really unethical to pretend to be something you’re not and I know in the past they’ve gone to churches and universities in Auckland in a deceptive way,” Lineham said.

“Now they advertise more freely in newspapers and on billboards, so I thought they wouldn’t hide their identity in churches anymore.”

Lee Man-Hee, the chairman of Shincheonji, was arrested in 2020. (File photo)

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Lee Man-Hee, the chairman of Shincheonji, was arrested in 2020. (File photo)

Churches were open to the public, Lineham said, but it was “inappropriate” to try to recruit people there.

“Shincheonji tries to appeal to people who are troubled by a desire to understand life better. They target young people as they are a natural group that struggles with feelings around their sense of belonging.

Lineham said it’s also important to remember that there is no specific meaning to the word cult and that Shincheonji is technically a “religious movement”.

“A lot of times as people we label things as cults when it’s new and we don’t know what to make of it.”

Cho said it seemed like Shincheonji was showing off more online through publicity, but some of the group’s social media had been taken down and didn’t mention his tenets.

“They’re more open that way, but still use the same recruiting tactics. There is deception and secrecy surrounding their organization.

Cho said worshipers should be careful about giving their details to people they don’t know.

If they were invited to an event, they would have to ask about the group organizing it, he said.

“I wish things didn’t turn out like this, but we have to be extremely vigilant to protect ourselves from high-control cults.”

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