Investigating Shincheonji: A Korean “cult” recruiting in Brisbane

An alleged Korean cult has been recruiting QUT students off the streets of Brisbane and through social media platforms, isolating them from family and friends. 

Students are invited to free “bible study sessions” over Facebook and then introduced to Shincheonji (SCJ) – also known as New Heaven New Earth. 

The group encourages members to cut off people in their lives who are not part of the group or those who have left, and use personal information to better cater the teachings to individual recruits.  

SCJ was established in Korea in 1984 and has around 317,000 members internationally, with confirmed congregations in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.  

SCJ members believe their 91-year-old leader, Lee Man-Hee, is the key to salvation when the “Great Tribulation” begins.  

According to the SCJ textbook, ‘The Physical Fulfillment of Revelation’, the Great Tribulation will begin when 144,000 selected priests have been gathered amongst the 12 tribes. 

In 2021, Lee Man-Hee declared that the COVID-19 pandemic was the Great Tribulation, but later revoked his statement because membership numbers had not been met. 

Laurie Claassen, the former head of SCJ in Namibia, was with the group for seven years, and worked for the group in London and South Africa as well.  

He now runs a YouTube channel called “Shincheonji Skeptic”, where he claims SCJ is a cult. 

“I think a lot of SCJ people, they get triggered when someone uses the word cult.  

“I currently adhere to the definition of a cult as a high control or high demand group, and so I do consider SCJ to be a cult.”  

According to Claassen, SCJ members actively spy on new recruits and pass on information about them to teachers, whose role is to guide the bible study sessions.  

“I have a lot of information and I create content on how to teach the bible that is more relevant to their lives, so it feels to them that it’s like God speaking to them, because I’m saying stuff that I couldn’t have known simply by myself.” 

SCJ also uses loaded language when referring to new and current members.  

Chris, a former member of SCJ, says new recruits are referred to as “fruits” and the spy is known as a “leaf”. 

“The fruit is not aware that the leaf is an actual member and so they become close over time. The fruit will spill their secrets and their doubts, and the leaf will report that in a group chat.” 

Claassen says SCJ also seeks to control its followers by planting what he refers to as “maintainers” among new recruits.    

“We would plant members in these people’s lives to kind of befriend them, maintain them, to gather information and to stop any form of outside interference that tries to hinder the recruitment process. 

“Whenever there’s people from the outside that try to convince you to do something else with your time, they will stop that from happening.  

“They will get involved, they will try to convince you not to follow those things because it’s from the devil or it’s the desires of the world.” 

After being approached by SCJ members in person and online, I attended four “bible study classes” personally. 

I was originally told the church was called the Zion Mission Centre and was only told the bible study classes were actually run by SCJ at the final class I attended. 

During the first session, we were told about a free seven-to-eight-month course that students can sign up for.  

The course is a mandatory first step if students want to join the main church.  

Claassen says students must complete a series of tests given by the headquarters of SCJ to “pass -over” into the main church as an official member.  

“When members go from the Centre Course to the church building, this event is called the pass-over. They pass-over from death to life.”  

During my third session, the teacher told the class not to tell our friends and family that we were attending, because friends and family would try to dissuade us from going. 

Claassen provided me with what he says are two internal SCJ documents for teachers, titled ‘Persecution Response Education’ and ‘Persecution’.  

The documents appear to provide instructions for teachers on how to handle enquiries from police, media and former group members and their families.  

Former SCJ members and their families are referred to as “persecutors”.  

Violet (not their real name), is a Brisbane based ex-member of SCJ and doesn’t believe the group is a cult, but she does say she has mixed feelings about the organisation. 

“I’m thankful I went through it, but I wouldn’t stay in there because I knew the longer I stayed, I felt like I wasn’t being true to myself. 

“You just had to smile a lot, you just had to never say anything that would affect other people.  

“I feel like mental health isn’t really talked about there. We were just being gaslighted using the Bible, I guess. And in that sense, I wouldn’t let people join it.” 

Violet says SCJ is against recruiting those with mental health issues, saying it is a challenge for those without a “clear state of mind” to be studying the bible. 

“It’s funny because I was going through depression when I studied the Bible. So, am I just not meant to be here?”  

Violet spoke to a SCJ teacher about the mental health stigma, only to be told it was “according to God’s word”.   

“She told me, ‘We want to give the best workers for God and their [those with mental health struggles] time will come too.  

“But while we’re in the early stages, we need to invite as many people as we want, but we can’t because we have this criteria’.”  

Claassen says SCJ’s criteria is to ensure those who join the group are “worthy”.  

“We would call this ‘fruit discernment’ to make sure that these people are worthy to be recruited to the kingdom of God.” 

Cult Information and Family Support president Tore Klevjer, believes that cults do not want individuals with mental health issues because it reflects poorly on the group.  

“If anything is wrong with you, such as mental health issues or physical health issues, then it’s quite often attributed to some kind of sin or failure in you and in your life.” 

Claassen says he does not believe SCJ is a physically dangerous group, but its practice of dismissing mental health issues is dangerous. 

“We’ve had cases in the church in South Africa and in Namibia where people would try to commit suicide.” 

Violet left the organisation in 2021, and despite leaving, she still believes that joining SCJ had its benefits. 

“I figured out a lot of my strengths when I was in there and I built up a lot of skills. I used to not be very good at public speaking or I wasn’t very confident in that sense. I wasn’t very focused and motivated in my work, but I’ve put that kind of energy into now.” 

Violet is still in contact with her friends from SCJ, but members were discouraged from communicating with her.  

“The ones that did leave, they told me, ‘Oh, they had this education about you’. 

“They have like a general church thing where the whole church just said, you know, ‘Don’t talk to ex-members,’ and in the group, they would say ‘Don’t talk to Violet’.” 

Two Brisbane-based SCJ teachers were asked to be interviewed for this story. Both declined due to time constraints.  

Stella Oh
Stella Oh

Stella is an international student from Malaysia. She enjoys researching and investigating strange or challenging topics, which is why she joined the cult in the first place. She promises she is not naive, just nosy.

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