When Cecilia Lee got here residence to Seoul from the Pennsylvania school she was attending, she came upon her mom was affected by the early levels of uterine most cancers — and that she was refusing therapy.
Lee says her mother, Eun Jae Jeong, had turn out to be distrustful of medication and feared docs would inject her with a monitoring chip — one thing she’d heard about at her new church.
Lee’s father died of most cancers in 2009, so it upset her to see her mom being so cavalier together with her analysis. It had been 4 years since his demise, and Lee seen that regardless of her analysis, her mom was happier than she’d been since her husband died. She out of the blue had many new buddies by a brand new church she joined.
Lee was afraid to lose one other dad or mum to most cancers, so she made her mom promise to go to the physician, then the 21-year-old went again to her research within the U.S.
However Jeong didn’t observe by on that promise. Lee found in mid-2014 that though her mom had steadfastly been attending church, she was avoiding her physician.
Pissed off, Lee took a depart of absence from her diploma in biology to return to Seoul and look after her mom.
“We made a deal that if I went to 1 sermon — only one — she would go get her therapies.”
Lee says that call led her down a path that might break up her from her prolonged household, plunge her into monetary hardship, derail her schooling and depart her paranoid that her mom’s church may someday attempt to drag her again to their headquarters in Fiji to trip out the apocalypse.
Lee claims to have escaped from the Grace Street Church, a Christian-inspired group based in South Korea by Pastor Okay-Joo Shin in 2002. The group claims to have members from South Korea, Canada, the USA, Japan, Australia, Vietnam and New Zealand, based on its web site. Its company arm, GR Group, has over 400 members and greater than $10 million in enterprise investments in Fiji.
“It presents itself as a innocent church — a non secular group that has all these companies — nevertheless it’s an entire façade,” Lee mentioned. “Grace Street is a cult.”
The group denies it’s a cult, casting itself as a Christian non secular motion. Grace Street was simply beginning to set up itself in Fiji in 2014. Now, with 400 members relocated to the tiny South Pacific nation, it could be on the verge of crumbling. Shin was arrested in South Korea in July and is accused of taking her followers’ passports to entice them in Fiji, and of beating them as a part of a church ritual. She has denied all the fees.
Lee says her kinfolk and different members of the church tried to entice her in Fiji by taking her passport in 2014.
The church’s company arm, GR Group, denied Lee’s allegations in an electronic mail assertion to International Information. “She has by no means been to Grace Street Church,” the group mentioned. GR Group acknowledged that Lee left Fiji “by the embassy,” and that her mom, grandmother, aunts and cousins are a part of the group.
“Search engine marketing-Yeon Lee’s case is a household matter between her mom and herself, and her story is fake and really exaggerated,” a church spokesperson mentioned, utilizing Cecilia’s Korean title.
“[Jeong] needed her daughter to develop in religion, so she requested her to go to Fiji collectively together with her,” an unnamed spokesperson for GR Group instructed International Information.
International Information tried to succeed in Jeong by Grace Street however was unable to talk together with her straight.
Lee offered International Information with a number of supporting paperwork to corroborate her story, together with a Fiji police report declaring her passport misplaced, airline tickets displaying her flights between Fiji and South Korea and a photograph of her short-term passport issued on Dec. 16, 2014. The short-term passport was issued for a single flight from Fiji to South Korea.
‘The top of occasions’
Lee first met Shin in the summertime of 2014, after agreeing to attend a sermon together with her mother.
Jeong drove Lee to an industrial space outdoors Seoul, the place the Grace Street Church had arrange a whole bunch of folding chairs for a service in a warehouse. It regarded rundown and thrown collectively, Lee mentioned. “It was very creepy,” she recalled.
Lee, who grew up Catholic and went to church each Sunday as a baby, had by no means heard the passages Shin cited a few devastating famine that might wipe out the world’s inhabitants.
“The pastor went on and on about Revelation, the tip of occasions,” Lee mentioned.
“It simply didn’t really feel proper. I knew the second I stepped in that it was unsuitable.”
Followers of the Grace Street Church consider the world will likely be worn out by famine and that the one place that will likely be spared is Fiji, based on the group’s web site. However Lee says she didn’t hear about Fiji till later.
‘Assist me transfer’
Lee didn’t be a part of Grace Street after her first sermon, however her mom did preserve her promise to get surgical procedure to take away her most cancers.
Lee stayed in South Korea for Jeong’s restoration that summer season and took an internship at a college in Seoul. She began relationship one other pupil there, and when he moved to Montreal for varsity, she booked a aircraft ticket to go to.
In the meantime, Jeong was beginning to discuss shifting to Fiji. She instructed Lee she was going to promote their belongings and retire there, and he or she needed her daughter to come back alongside.
Lee wasn’t in contact together with her father’s facet of the household, however her mom’s facet supported the transfer. Lee refused to maneuver there completely, however was open to serving to her mom settle in. She agreed to go for a two-week go to in December, after which she would catch her flight to Montreal by way of South Korea. She boarded the aircraft together with her mom to Fiji, anticipating a quiet trip.
Lee acknowledged the person who met them on the airport, however she couldn’t instantly place from the place. Later, once they arrived at a crowded villa in Pacific Harbour, she figured it out: he was from the Grace Street, and her mother was shifting into the church’s new commune.
“I used to be internally freaking out,” Lee mentioned.
‘You’re not leaving’
Lee spent two weeks on the commune in December 2014. Roughly 30 individuals lived there, with the ladies working within the kitchen and the lads tending a big farm they’d acquired close by. She says they hand-built every little thing, together with the beds, and would collect every day to observe a livestream of Pastor Shin’s sermon from South Korea. Lee didn’t take part.
A number of church members tried to persuade her to remain for a mass wedding ceremony involving 4 on New 12 months’s Eve. However Lee had no intention of cancelling her journey to Montreal, so she waited out the 2 weeks and tried to not get too concerned.
Lee claims that the day earlier than her flight she found that her laptop computer, her passport, her bank cards and all her belongings have been gone. She demanded her mom return them, however she refused, as Lee recollects, saying: “Your passport’s gone. You’re not leaving, you’re staying.”
Lee panicked. She claims she referred to as the police for assist, however a member of the church referred to as the police again to say it was only a prank. She suspects that church members minimize her landline, and that one in all her kinfolk used her social insurance coverage quantity to disable her cellphone.
Lee says she ran out into the road and began screaming, drawing stares from the neighbours. She says Grace Street members dragged her again to her room and instructed the neighbours it was effective. “I used to be trashing the whole place, simply making an attempt to get consideration,” she mentioned.
‘Escape’ from Grace Street
The subsequent day Lee says she fled Grace Street in her pyjamas and flip-flops, with no passport, cash or possessions. She says a number of members noticed her run by the villa gate, however did not meet up with her earlier than she reached a passing police automotive.
In line with Lee, the police officer dropped her off on the South Korean embassy. The embassy gave her a brief journey certificates for her return flight to South Korea, and police promised to present her an escort to the aircraft.
She says members of the church adopted her at a distance by each step of the method.
Lee’s mom caught up together with her simply earlier than she left for the airport. Lee says that in a tense confrontation, Jeong instructed Lee she was adopted and that she would lose her whole household if she left Fiji as a result of they have been all becoming a member of the church, too. In line with Lee, Jeong additionally mentioned she’d bought all of their belongings — together with Lee’s father’s enterprise — and donated all her cash to the church. In different phrases, there was nothing left for Lee in South Korea.
“It was my mother’s sick method of claiming that she actually cared for me and he or she actually needed me to go to heaven, and staying in Fiji ensured my passage to heaven,” Lee mentioned.
Lee left Fiji on an early-morning flight on Dec. 17, 2014. She spent one week in South Korea getting her official paperwork re-issued and convincing police that she was not lacking, after studying lacking individuals report had been filed about her. Lee shared a picture of the lacking individuals report with International Information. She suspects it was filed by a devotee of Grace Street.
Lee boarded a flight for Montreal on Dec. 22 and went to stick with her boyfriend, returning to South Korea eight months later.
Lee says the ordeal derailed her plans to go to medical faculty and left her broke. “I used to be primarily homeless,” she mentioned, including that she ultimately bought again on her toes thanks to assist from buddies who let her stick with them in South Korea.
Now 25, Lee works in advertising in Seoul and isn’t in contact with both facet of her household. She says her mother and her mother’s household “ruined her life” over the Grace Street Church.
‘An attractive utopia’
GR Group has over three dozen eating places, resorts and shops in Fiji, a small nation with 920,000 residents and a GDP of roughly US$5.1 billion — roughly 40 per cent bigger than the GDP of Prince Edward Island. The group invested $5 million in Fiji Nationwide College to lease land and construct a rice farm on its property. It additionally has a number of contracts with the Fijian authorities, together with agreements to renovate the president’s residence and the prime minister’s workplace.
A spokesperson for Fiji Nationwide College says the college carried out its due diligence with GR Group earlier than getting into right into a partnership in 2015, and that the college has had a “harmonious” relationship with the group ever since.
The Fijian authorities didn’t reply to a International Information request for remark.
A number of former members say the group’s wealth comes from its members, who’re urged to promote all their possessions and donate the proceeds to the church. Lee says her mom was handpicked to arrange the operation in Fiji as a result of she donated a big sum of cash, together with the worth of Lee’s father’s firm, to the church.
“If I knew the quantity, I believe I’d be sick,” Lee mentioned. “Every part went into that church — my father’s legacy.”
The Grace Street Church is one in all a number of Christian-inspired “doomsday” teams to emerge in South Korea over the previous couple of many years, based on Donald Baker, a professor specializing in Korean religions on the College of British Columbia.
“They anticipate the world to finish quickly and due to this fact they minimize off all their worldly ties to simply sit and look ahead to Christ to return,” Baker instructed International Information. “[Shin] discovered a ‘protected’ place for believers to go. She says the Bible instructed her it’s Fiji.”
Grace Street isn’t the primary such group to hunt refuge in Fiji, the place extradition legal guidelines will be tough to handle. American mystic Franklin Jones moved his controversial Adidam group to an island in Fiji within the 1980s. Alleged Australian cult chief Rocco Leo additionally moved to Fiji after Australian police raided his group’s properties.
Extra lately, Seagram heiress Clare Bronfman staked her personal island in Fiji as bail after she was arrested in reference to the Nxivm, an alleged intercourse cult. Bronfman initially bought the island in 2016.
Consultants have in contrast Grace Street to such teams because the Rajneesh, whose aggressive techniques in Oregon have been documented within the Netflix docu-series Wild, Wild Nation, and the Individuals’s Temple, the Jim Jones-run doomsday cult whose members died by mass suicide in Guyana almost 40 years in the past. Each teams famously left the realm the place they have been based and arrange remoted settlements elsewhere.
“What’s occurring in Fiji typically jogs my memory of Jonestown — the Individuals’s Temple,” mentioned Ji-Il Tark, a professor of faith at Busan Presbyterian College in South Korea.
Tark says Grace Street followers are taught to sacrifice every little thing on this world as an “funding” of their salvation. “If one believes in Pastor Shin’s teachings, the precedence of their lives has been radically modified from frequent sense to unique non secular perception, and from family-centred to church-centred,” he mentioned.
He provides that wealth and political affect are essential to the survival of teams just like the Grace Street Church as a result of it permits them to guard their pursuits and isolate their members.
Steven Hassan, an skilled in mind-control techniques and who describes himself as a former cult member, additionally sees similarities between Shin and Individuals’s Temple chief Jim Jones.
“He painted an image of a fantastic utopia in Guyana they usually bought a whole lot of the members to go down, then they took their passports away, which is strictly what this group did in Fiji,” he instructed International Information.
Hassan says it’s very tough for members of the family who lose somebody to a cult, as a result of it’s like that individual has died. They utterly change and not hearken to motive or care about their family members. Hassan joined an alleged Korean cult generally known as the Unification Church when he was 19. He says he acted a lot the identical method Jeong did with Lee as a result of he had been brainwashed by his group’s charismatic chief. “I couldn’t assume as a result of I used to be taught thought-stopping strategies to close out doubts,” he mentioned. “I used to be a fanatic.”
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Hassan left the group after his sister intervened and launched him to a number of former cult members.
He says cult brainwashing works greatest when victims are remoted, nevertheless it begins to interrupt aside when they’re uncovered to who they was.
A reckoning for Pastor Shin?
South Korean police started investigating Grace Street this summer season, after a number of former followers alleged that the church took away 400 members’ passports in Fiji and subjected many members to fierce beatings.
Video additionally surfaced displaying Shin beating a number of members of her congregation at providers. The footage was first revealed by the Seoul Broadcasting Service (SBS) in a documentary and seems to have been captured by cameras that have been set as much as file Shin’s sermons.
Police in South Korea arrested Shin and three of her followers in July and charged them with assault and forcible confinement in reference to the previous devotees’ allegations.
Fijian and South Korean police launched a raid on the Grace Street compound in Fiji in August. Six people have been arrested, together with Shin’s son, GR Group president Daniel Kim. They have been later launched with out cost.
Kim, who acquired a enterprise award from Fiji’s prime minister final yr, says there isn’t a reality to the allegations towards Grace Street.
“All of our individuals got here to Fiji to dwell right here voluntarily with their households and do numerous initiatives for the mission to make Fiji shine, as a result of that is our motto,” he instructed the Fiji Solar on Aug. 21.
A number of former members have come out towards the church within the wake of Shin’s arrest. One particular person, who requested to be referred to as Seong Bin Na, mentioned he noticed a number of individuals injured in the course of the ritual beatings. In some instances, he says members of the family have been compelled to strike one another. “Individuals begin bleeding, eyes get swollen, ear drums get ruptured,” he instructed SBS in Korean.
“They drag the individual by the hair. Whereas being dragged, they’d repeatedly hit the individual’s mouth and eyes.”
One other former follower instructed the Fiji Occasions that he was subjected to brutal working situations on the Grace Street farm after he moved to Fiji together with his spouse and two daughters in 2015. “We ate, slept, labored six days every week,” mentioned Park Chanmoon.
The 70-year-old says he labored 12-to-14-hour shifts within the fields and was crushed a number of occasions at Pastor Shin’s providers. The church denied his claims.
“They didn’t beat anybody once I was there,” Lee mentioned.
Shin stays in custody in South Korea. It’s unclear who’s main Grace Street in Shin’s absence.
Tark says it’s tough for cult members to maneuver on after a pacesetter leaves them. He says the South Korean authorities ought to attempt to assist these Shin has left behind, particularly any youngsters who could be residing on the Grace Street compound in Fiji.
Hassan says there’s a great probability Grace Street will survive so long as Shin is alive as a result of she will proceed to direct the group’s actions from jail.
Lee has given up hope of reconciling together with her mom or her mom’s household. As a substitute, she hopes Pastor Shin will likely be convicted and her church will crumble.
“It’s lastly coming to an finish,” she mentioned. “There will likely be justice.”
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