Notice: Undefined index: et_header_layout in /home/hrwfe90/domains/hrwf.eu/public_html/wp-content/plugins/pdf-print/pdf-print.php on line 1345

Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type null in /home/hrwfe90/domains/hrwf.eu/public_html/wp-content/plugins/pdf-print/pdf-print.php on line 1345

Notice: Undefined index: et_header_layout in /home/hrwfe90/domains/hrwf.eu/public_html/wp-content/plugins/pdf-print/pdf-print.php on line 1346

Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type null in /home/hrwfe90/domains/hrwf.eu/public_html/wp-content/plugins/pdf-print/pdf-print.php on line 1346

Notice: Undefined index: et_template in /home/hrwfe90/domains/hrwf.eu/public_html/wp-content/plugins/pdf-print/pdf-print.php on line 1347

SOUTH KOREA: Shincheonji Church Chairman Lee not guilty of COVID offenses

Shincheonji: Chairman Lee not guilty of COVID offenses, appeal Court said

On November 30, the Suwon High Court confirmed that the leader of the Korean new religious movement did not breach epidemic-related laws.

By Massimo Introvigne

Bitter Winter (12.01.2021) – https://bit.ly/32GikIr – On November 30, 2021, the Suwon High Court rendered its verdict in the appeal case against Lee Man Hee, the leader of the South Korean Christian new religious movement Shincheonji, who had been arrested in the night between July 31 and August 1, 2020, and accused of having violated the Korean law on epidemic control. Allegedly, he had not given to the authorities, when requested, the full list of the movement’s members and properties after one female devotee had been infected and spread the disease to co-religionists.

The appellate court has confirmed the first-degree verdict, which declared Chairman Lee, as he is called by his followers, fully innocent of all COVID-related offenses.

For several months, South Korean and international media had depicted Shincheonji and Chairman Lee as “plague-spreaders” responsible of the first outbreak of COVID-19 in South Korea. For the second times, South Korean courts of law have debunked this claim as fake news.

On February 18, 2020, a female member of Shincheonji from Daegu, South Korea, later nicknamed “Patient 31,” tested positive to COVID-19. Before that date, she had been hospitalized, misdiagnosed with a common cold, and sent back to her home, from where she moved to attend several Shincheonji religious gatherings, infecting other co-religionists. Health authorities reacted by asking Shincheonji lists of all its members, not only in Daegu but throughout South Korea and even abroad, and of the real estate properties it owned.

Shincheonji did supply several lists, but the authorities suspected they were not complete. They raided Shincheonji’s headquarters to obtain the full lists. Although police leaders and the Deputy Minister of Health told the media that the discrepancies between the lists supplied by Shincheonji and those seized in the raid were minimal, leaders of the religious movements, and Chairman Lee himself, were accused of having obstructed the work of health authorities by submitting incomplete lists. In the night between July 31 and August 1, 2020, the 89-year-old Chairman Lee was arrested. He was later committed to trial before the Suwon District Court, which rendered its verdict on January 13, 2021.

Both the first degree and the appeal verdict have found Chairman Lee not guilty based on both a question of law and a question of fact. The question of law is how far health authorities may go, applying the Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act (IDCPA), when they summon, during an epidemic, information that private parties would normally have the right to keep confidential, as they are protected by privacy laws. The Korean judges agreed with international critics of Chairman Lee’s prosecution that in the exceptional situation of an epidemic the authorities may summon otherwise confidential information, but within reasonable limits and based on a principle of proportionality. Asking the complete lists of Shincheonji members, including those from abroad, and of real estate the movement owned, including properties not used for meetings, clearly went beyond these limits.

On the question of fact, the decisions noted that the Central Disease Control Headquarters (CDCH) did not clearly ask for a list of all facilities owned by Shincheonji (including those where no gatherings ever took place), and which facilities they were interested in was not immediately clear. Yet, even if the judges concluded that Shincheonji was not compelled to do so, a list of 1,100 facilities was submitted on February 22, seven days after the CDCH’s first request, and a more complete list of 2,041 facilities on March 9. It is true, the court said, that four properties were omitted, as Chairman Lee argued they did not really belong to Shincheonji and should not be listed. But overall, Shincheonji and Chairman Lee did their best in compiling and supplying as quickly as possible a list of more than 2,000 properties owned by different legal entities connected with Shincheonji, both national and local.

The court came to similar conclusions concerning the list of Shincheonji’s members. The prosecution had built its case on a wiretapped phone conversation where Chairman Lee, when he was first informed that a full list of all members of Shincheonji had been requested, expressed a negative attitude. As it happened with the list of the properties, the CDCH’s request of a list including all South Korean members, students (i.e., those studying to become members, but not yet formally part of Shincheonji), and even members abroad went beyond the law, and Chairman Lee’s doubts were justified, the judges said.

However, after this phone call of February 24, Shincheonji did not close the door to cooperation but negotiated with the government. “The same night” of February 24, the court ascertained, Chairman Lee gave his blessing to an agreement under which Shincheonji undertook to supply the CDCH with a list of members including their names, dates of birth, genders, addresses, phone numbers. The list was submitted the following day, February 25.

The prosecutors objected that the list was not complete, because it did not include the resident registration numbers of the members. However, the court confirmed that the agreement between Shincheonji and the CDCH did not mention the resident registration numbers, only addresses and dates of birth.

The lists, in the end, included 212,324 domestic members and 33,281 overseas members. The prosecution claimed that the lists were misleading, because some 24 dates of births were incorrect, and eight names were missing. Apart from the fact that such percentage of errors is statistically normal in a data base with more than 200,000 records, the court observed that the dates of birth were not altered after the CDCH requested the list, so that the inaccuracy did not reflect an intent to obstruct the CDCH’s anti-COVID work. As for the eight missing names, some were dead, some had left Shincheonji, and two (on whom the prosecution insisted) were persons in process of leaving Shincheonji, who had requested their names to be deleted from the members’ lists, and who had not participated in recent church activities.

CDCH officers testified that “there was no evidence of obstruction” of anti-COVID efforts by Shincheonji. On the contrary, after the agreement with the authorities about the list was concluded, “Shincheonji actively cooperated with the submission of data and promptly provided them to the CDCH.”

Despite the fact that Shincheonji members are discriminated in South Korea, and being identified as a member of Shincheonji may lead to being bullied and even losing one’s job, Shincheonji and Chairman Lee did the best they could to cooperate with the authorities, as soon as they learned the unfortunate story of Patient 31—for which they are certainly not responsible, as when she participated in church events she had not yet been diagnosed with COVID-19, and public gatherings were still allowed in South Korea.

Media in South Korea and all over the world referred to Shincheonji as a cult of plague-spreaders, and some even invented bizarre theories that Shincheonji members refrain from visiting hospitals and taking advantage of modern medicine (in fact, some of them are doctors and nurses), or welcomed the infection because of some strange mystic of suffering (which is totally foreign to their theology).

In a country where accusations raised by prosecutors are accepted by judges in more than 90% of the cases, both the Suwon District Court and the Suwon High Court dismissed the legend of Shincheonji and Chairman Lee as plague-spreaders for what it was, fake news.

Prosecutors can never totally lose in South Korea, and other charges had been added against Chairman Lee. They concern episodes that had allegedly happened long before the COVID-19 crisis started, including mismanaging funds and holding events in facilities whose owners had canceled the corresponding rental agreements. We have explained that these accusations did not make sense, but they served as a parachute for the prosecutors after their COVID case has collapsed. This also happened on appeal, where the sentence of a suspended three-year prison term was confirmed, with the suspension extended from four to five years. This means that the 90-year-old Chairman Lee will not go to jail unless he repeats the alleged offenses.

Everybody understands that the additional charges were thrown in to save the face of the prosecutors and the politicians who had backed them, while the important point is that all the propaganda about Shincheonji as spreader of the COVID-19 virus has now been definitively exposed as a lie. But the damage has been done and, notwithstanding the court verdicts, anti-cultists and some media will likely continue to repeat the lie that Shincheonji and Chairman Lee were responsible for spreading COVID-19 in South Korea.

Photo : Chairman Lee

Massimo Introvigne (born June 14, 1955 in Rome) is an Italian sociologist of religions. He is the founder and managing director of the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR), an international network of scholars who study new religious movements. Introvigne is the author of some 70 books and more than 100 articles in the field of sociology of religion. He was the main author of the Enciclopedia delle religioni in Italia (Encyclopedia of Religions in Italy). He is a member of the editorial board for the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion and of the executive board of University of California Press’ Nova Religio.  From January 5 to December 31, 2011, he has served as the “Representative on combating racism, xenophobia and discrimination, with a special focus on discrimination against Christians and members of other religions” of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). From 2012 to 2015 he served as chairperson of the Observatory of Religious Liberty, instituted by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in order to monitor problems of religious liberty on a worldwide scale.

Further reading about FORB in South Korea on HRWF website

Notice: Undefined index: et_header_layout in /home/hrwfe90/domains/hrwf.eu/public_html/wp-content/plugins/pdf-print/pdf-print.php on line 1345

Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type null in /home/hrwfe90/domains/hrwf.eu/public_html/wp-content/plugins/pdf-print/pdf-print.php on line 1345

Notice: Undefined index: et_header_layout in /home/hrwfe90/domains/hrwf.eu/public_html/wp-content/plugins/pdf-print/pdf-print.php on line 1346

Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type null in /home/hrwfe90/domains/hrwf.eu/public_html/wp-content/plugins/pdf-print/pdf-print.php on line 1346

Notice: Undefined index: et_template in /home/hrwfe90/domains/hrwf.eu/public_html/wp-content/plugins/pdf-print/pdf-print.php on line 1347

SOUTH KOREA: Chairman Lee’s « embezzlement of fund » : stealing from his own pocket

The Suwon District Court found Shincheonji’s leader not guilty of obstructing the anti-COVID-19 health efforts, but said (wrongly) he mismanaged the group’s money.

By Massimo Introvigne

Bitter Winter (03.02.2021) – https://bit.ly/2MVL3kW – Many in the world know the names of Shincheonji and its leader, Chairman Lee Man Hee, only because they were accused by South Korean authorities of voluntarily obstructing the campaign to contain COVID-19 in the country, after a member of the movement had emerged as a “superspreader” of the virus. As I discussed in previous articles analyzing the decision, on January 13, 2021 the Suwon District Court acquitted Chairman Lee from all COVID-related charges and recognized that, rather than obstructing the health authorities’ efforts, “Shincheonji actively” and “promptly” cooperated with them.

After the prosecution of Chairman Lee for COVID-related offenses had started, the prosecutors added two additional charges, the first, that he had “embezzled funds” belonging to Shincheonji, and the second, which I will examine in a future article, that he had organized activities in certain venues after the corresponding rental agreements had been cancelled by the owners.

Writing in The Korea Times before the trial started, an astute observer of South Korean religious and legal scene, Michael Breen, noted that in court cases involving leaders of unpopular religious movements the charge of “embezzlement of fund” is always included, as a sort of a parachute that will be used to save the prosecutors’ face, in a country that has a 97 percent conviction rate in criminal cases, should other charges fail. “The best evidence that this is a witch-hunt, Breen wrote, is that the prosecutors have thrown in a financial charge for good measure in case the [COVID-related] obstruction of government charge doesn’t stick… The court is almost certain to accept this as embezzlement if the prosecutors say it is.” Breen’s prediction came true, and was consistent with the study by Kim Chang An and other scholars of the previous prosecution in South Korea of leaders of groups their opponents labeled as “cults.”

This is based, not only in South Korea, on an anti-cult stereotype, easily accepted by the public opinion, that “cult” leaders prey on gullible followers and on their wallets. In fact, there is no evidence that new religious movements in general receive monetary contributions in amounts higher than traditional religions, nor that funds are administered with less transparency. In the same year 2020, scandals concerning the Vatican and international Buddhist orders confirmed that problems in managing funds are not exclusive to “cults.”

Accusations of “embezzlement of funds” against leaders of new religious movements are, however, easier. When a religious movement is in its first generation, with the leader still alive, it is very much common that the assets of the movement and of the leader are somewhat confused. For members, it may be unclear whether they are donating to the leader or the movement. Most of them do not make such a distinction. The leader is the movement, and by supporting the leader, his or her travels around the world, and other activities, devotees believe they are supporting the religious organization. When it is accused to embezzle the movement’s funds, the leader is often charged with stealing from his or her own wallet, and defense is difficult.

Shincheonji is divided territorially into twelve “tribes,” and Chairman Lee was accused of having deposited in his personal accounts gifts received by the Matthias Tribe and the Peter Tribe. His defense is that he regarded these as donations to him, and the money was used to support his world tours and other activities that ultimately benefited Shincheonji and Shincheonji-related organizations.

The court observed that “according to Shincheonji’s regulations, donations are prohibited to individuals,” and concluded that by depositing the checks into his personal bank account, Chairman Lee was guilty of embezzlement of funds. Statements by donors that they had no complaints and were indeed happy that Chairman Lee used their gifts for his travels and activities were regarded as irrelevant.

Chairman Lee is also accused of having embezzled funds from the peace and cultural association HWPL, of which he is the chairperson. His defense was that the origin of these funds should be considered. Although deposited in an HWPL account, they were gifts by Shincheonji devotees intended for Chairman Lee. And that his “personal use” of funds in the HWPL account was for activities that went to the benefit of HWPL, of which he was the most well-known representative. Again, the court made the formalistic argument that donations according to Shincheonji’s statutes are for the movement rather than for individuals prevail on Lee’s quite logical explanations.

The most bizarre claim was that Chairman Lee embezzled funds belonging to Shincheonji to support the construction of the Palace of Peace in Gapyeong. I have personally visited the Palace of Peace twice (and I doubt those who wrote the decision did). It is true that Chairman Lee lives there—in a modest apartment, far away from the luxury surrounding other religious leaders. However, the largest part of the Palace of Peace is used as a training and conference center for HWPL events, and includes an exhibition and museum about the history of Shincheonji and its related organizations. Clearly, the Palace of Peace is not the private home of Chairman Lee, but a key facility for Shincheonji and its related organizations, for which Shincheonji funds have been rightfully used.

The court, however, accepted the prosecution’s claim that, since Lee had his “bedroom and wardrobe” in the Palace of Peace, and spent there “at least 10 days a month,” while “Shincheonji events were not held more than 10 times a year on average,” then “the building was not used for Shincheonji’s” purposes “but for the defendant’s personal use.”

With all due respect to the court, this argument is obviously wrong. It is normal that large events such as Shincheonji’s peace and other conferences are not organized every day. However, facilities intended for events are not facilities for the personal life of an individual. By far, the largest area of the Peace Palace is the one including a conference hall and a museum about Shincheonji’s past activities. In addition, there are meeting rooms and offices where, for example, I and other scholars interviewed Lee. The part of the property where Lee lives is comparatively minor.

But, quite apart from any assessment of prevalence, it is clear that Lee spends his time in a property equipped with meeting rooms, office, a large conference hall and even a museum, to perform his duties as the leader of Shincheonji and not simply to enjoy Gapyeong’s scenic view. From the Vatican down to lesser properties, there are countless facilities that serve as centers for religious activities, and where the religion’s leader also lives—which does not convert them from religious centers to private homes.

The court acknowledged that, since he started hearing of these accusations, and in some cases before, Chairman Lee transferred back the funds he had received to the Matthias and Peter Tribes, Shincheonji, and HWPL, either by wiring back money or transferring shares of properties. Chairman Lee did this although he regarded the accusations as ludicrous, and the alleged “victims” had not asked to receive the money back. The court took this into consideration in sentencing Chairman Lee to the comparatively minor penalty of three years with probation.

The court was also aware that the “embezzlement of funds” charges were mostly supported by statements by Ms. Kim Nam Hee, and that it was this woman who largely managed Chairman Lee’s money during the period the court examined. The court noted that “their relationship [between Kim Nam Hee and Chairman Lee/Shincheonji] is not amicable,” yet decided to believe her at any rate.

For several years, Kim was perceived as Lee’s closest disciple and one some believed may become his “successor” in leading the movement. When it became clear that Shincheonji would not accept her as leader or “successor,” Kim started creating her own parallel or splinter group, which met with limited success. She was expelled from Shincheonji in January 2018, and had to face a trial at the Seoul Central District Court, on charges of embezzling money belonging to the church. On July 26, 2019, the Seoul Central District Court sentenced her to two years in prison, suspending the execution of the sentence for three years. The decision was confirmed on appeal on December 6, 2019.


Again, with all due respect to the court, it should have been clear that Kim, when she accused Lee of embezzlement, was not a credible witness. She is involved in a number of bitter lawsuits against Lee and Shincheonji, and has been herself found guilty, by a final court decision, of embezzling the movement’s funds. It seems that, after she lost the criminal court case filed against her by Shincheonji, she started a personal vendetta against Chairman Lee. It is unfortunate that both the media and the court took her seriously.

Photo : An artistic rendering by Shincheonji of the New Jerusalem, showing the central role of Chairman Lee as the “Promised Pastor.”

Notice: Undefined index: et_footer_layout in /home/hrwfe90/domains/hrwf.eu/public_html/wp-content/plugins/pdf-print/pdf-print.php on line 1395

Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type null in /home/hrwfe90/domains/hrwf.eu/public_html/wp-content/plugins/pdf-print/pdf-print.php on line 1395

Notice: Undefined index: et_footer_layout in /home/hrwfe90/domains/hrwf.eu/public_html/wp-content/plugins/pdf-print/pdf-print.php on line 1396

Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type null in /home/hrwfe90/domains/hrwf.eu/public_html/wp-content/plugins/pdf-print/pdf-print.php on line 1396

Notice: Undefined index: et_template in /home/hrwfe90/domains/hrwf.eu/public_html/wp-content/plugins/pdf-print/pdf-print.php on line 1397