When Caritas Lee Seung-hye set out on a series of Bible studies with her mother, she was given an interpretation that was very different to the one she remembered from school. The Holy Spirit came to someone secret, she was told, someone who was not any one of Jesus’ apostles. This interpretation was provided by Shinchonji, Church of Jesus, the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony (SCJ) a minority religious denomination which typically kicks off with a free Bible course and an exam. At this stage Caritas had no idea her brother had converted from Catholicism to Shinchonji. “I tried to find the lies and tricks in Shinchonji to catch my brother out,” says Caritas, who lives in Seoul’s now infamous Gangnam district. “But he refuted my evidence as a test of his faith to Shinchonji and we’re no longer able to talk with one another.”
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Since that time, her family has remained divided. Caritas’ brother no longer speaks to her mother either. Noting its suspect teachings and the damage done to her family, Caritas then became an anti-SCJ campaigner. Shinchonji, meaning ‘new Heaven and new Earth’ was founded in 1980 by Lee Man-hui, whom followers believe to be the ‘returned Jesus.’ Referencing Revelation (7:2): ‘Then I saw another Angel come up from the East, holding the seal of the living God,’ SCJ claims that ‘the East’ is Korea and that ‘another Angel’ is CSJ founder Lee. SCJ also toys with Revelation (7:4) in claiming that the 144,000 sealed members of the tribe of the children of Israel are instead the members of Shinchonji which make up the 12 tribes of the group across South Korea. Today, they operate more than 300 mission centers. Father Paul Han Min-taeg, assistant director of Evangelization and Education at Suwon diocese, says that SCJ is little more than a heretical Christian sect, one of an estimated 40 or so in South Korea. “It denies the Holy Trinity and deifies its founder Lee, dazing its followers by distorting the prophecies in Revelation,” he says. “With its apocalyptic view, it brainwashes followers and urges them to go out and lure followers in a variety of ways.” In recent years, the South Korean press, blog postings and confused expatriates writing online have tried to piece together exactly what SCJ represents and how it works. Many have pointed to an affiliation to a group called Mannam, a seemingly non-religious organization with an army of volunteers who typically encourage the uninitiated to take part in trips and activities across the country. Many foreigners have joined in and say they have had a good time without any hint of proselytizing. Yoo Jung-hoon, who like Caritas is an anti-SCJ campaigner, says that the group also preys on Catholics in the belief that many don’t know the Bible well enough to internally dismiss some of Shinchonji’s more outlandish claims.
“For them, luring Catholics is a piece of cake,” he says. Veronica Lee Eun-soo, 40, who gave a pseudonym to protect her identity, admits she was one of those easy targets. “Without any knowledge of the Bible, the teachings in the Shinchonji Bible study looked marvelous and I appreciated this God-given chance,” she says. “While studying there I felt I was a chosen one.” She says that now, many of SCJ’s claims – that all angels are humans and that the Bible is written in metaphors that only Lee can understand – seem ridiculous. “But I suddenly came to believe in the ridiculous,” she says. A Shinchonji official who did not give a name says that SCJ is misunderstood. It has never taught that Lee is Jesus, he added, although many of the SCJ faithful believe that to be the case “as they love him very much.” “We are people of God of a different denomination, just like Baptists or Methodists," he said. "But some other Christians tell malicious lies against us because more and more Christians are converting to Shinchonji.”