Feb 23, 2018

Brainwashed Annie, taken by the cult

The Australian

February 24, 2018

Melbourne women “Mary” and “Sally” know where their sister is some of the time, and where she sleeps at night, but she’s essentially a missing person, keeping odd hours and rejecting all pleas to come back.

Mary and Sally have asked that their real names not be used for fear of reprisals by the Australian arm of a cult that has taken their sister.

“Annie’’ is gone. In her place is a cult recruit obsessed with “Bible studies’’ and intricate journals, but most of all with secrecy.

Her sisters keep a scrapbook full of photographs of Annie to remember her as she was.

“She used to be softly spoken, now she’s so hard and tough,” Sally says. “We just want to shake her and find out what is holding her. We want to get her released and get her back, and we want to stop other people from falling into this.”

The cult is an apocalyptic South Korean group called Shincheonji (SCJ), or the Church of Jesus, the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony. It is estimated to have 120,000 members worldwide and it is now growing rapidly in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.

New members are recruited largely from peace groups and mainstream Christian churches, and from the huge international student community at universities. SCJ has 100 members in Melbourne, most of whom are busy looking for what the organisation calls “fruit” — that is, potential new converts.

The sisters come from Malaysia but moved to Melbourne for tertiary studies. They say Annie was recruited by SCJ members who had infiltrated the churches she attended, Hillsong and Planetshakers. By this time she had a masters degree in architecture, but she no longer studies, nor works in ­architecture, because of the cult.

She was recruited in 2014, and by 2015 had missed five family gatherings, including her grandmother’s funeral, her mother’s birthday and her nephew’s birthday. She kept unusual hours, being summoned late at night by text messages from the group. Her sisters thought she was working long hours, but in fact she had quit her job to meet fellow SCJ members every day and often all night. She kept living at home with one of her sisters, but was either absent or distant and non-communicative. She also began keeping intricate journals of her “studies’’.

The secretive group is led internationally by founder Lee Man-hee, 86, of Seoul, who says he has seen Jesus and has everlasting life.

Members are taught it is permissible to lie “for God’s purpose”. Their teachings are based on metaphorical interpretations of small biblical sections of Ezekiel, Matthew and Leviticus. They draw heavily on the Book of Revelations, including a belief that the opening of the Seven Seals will trigger the Apocalypse and the second coming of Christ.

In Australian SCJ strongholds, members study cult texts round the clock and sit frequent examinations as they rise up the levels of the organisation. They also stick up posters on university campuses. In Melbourne, Inquirer has learned, they often do this at 4am.

Raphael Aron, a Melbourne-based counsellor and the director of Cult Consulting Australia, has been probing the cult’s activities in Australia.

“In general, cults have the ability to cause their members to become withdrawn and very distant from their families,” he says.

“The drift away from their families is significant. They are physically absent but also emotionally absent because their emotions are all directed inwards toward the group, and their emotions are ­directed by the group.

“I am seeing young people who previously showed drive and passion being robbed of their potential. It’s like they have died.

“This is a relatively small cult (in Australia),” Aron says. “But that doesn’t mean they don’t want to expand.”

Eminent British psychologist Anthony Storr, author of a landmark book about cult leaders, Feet of Clay, wrote that a cult leader or guru is someone who claims to be a teacher with “special knowledge of the meaning of life”, usually based on “personal revelation”. They promise their followers “new ways of self-development” and have the “hubris” or charisma to persuade people they are right.

According to sources, SCJ has used two Melbourne universities as meeting and teaching ­venues: RMIT and the Australian Catholic University.

Sources also say a City of Melbourne-owned venue called the Multicultural Hub has been used, along with free meeting rooms at a suburban Officeworks in Box Hill and a public library in the suburb of Brighton.

Only ACU could confirm SCJ members had used its facilities. “Three or four” members had infiltrated an interfaith conference on the university’s Fitzroy campus in May 2014, a spokesman said.

A City of Melbourne spokesman said the council “conducted a check of the booking records of the city’s Multicultural Hub and there are no records that suggest any links with the (alleged) cult”.

However, a Melbourne man who infiltrated the SCJ says five Sunday meetings he went to in 2015 were at RMIT in Swanston Street, Melbourne. He says recruits think they are doing Bible study with a peace group until they advance to higher levels and learn of SCJ and Lee Man-hee. “They never call themselves by (the cult’s) name,” he says.

Recently, the main SCJ meeting place in Melbourne was rented factory space in Kensington. Video seen by Inquirer shows groups of mainly young Asian cult members dancing and chanting “We are the one”, an adaptation of USA for Africa’s 1980s charity single We are the World.

Video also shows members greeting a visiting South Korean cult leader at Tullamarine airport with singing and dancing. The organisation appears to use two “peace groups” as cover. They are: Heavenly Culture, World Peace, Restoration of Light (HWPL) and International Peace Youth Group. SCJ denies these are cover groups but says HWPL is led globally by Lee. A spokesman for HWPL in Melbourne, who has not been named for legal reasons, also denies the link but has provided Inquirer with contact details for SCJ leadership in Australia. HWPL Australia is registered at a Sydney residential address.

The Australian leader of the cult provided his name by email to Inquirer, but again, it has not been used for legal reasons.

He says he is based in Melbourne and that SCJ is not a cult. He writes: “There is no one in this world to call anyone a cult other than God himself. Therefore, we strongly ask you to look at yourself first whether you are righteous in God’s eyes so that you can call anyone by any names and wish you perform your noble task correctly as a journalist.”

He says SCJ recruits in Australia from big Christian churches. “Not only in Melbourne but all SCJ is giving the word of God to whoever truly wants to understand without any cost.”

However, he will not answer questions on using tertiary institutions and City of Melbourne buildings as meeting places.

“It is not appropriate to ask whether the members of SCJ used these venues for meetings since everyone living in Melbourne has right to use any places for any personal purposes. Writing article about this is a violation of the right itself and misleading ­people.”

He writes that families with “different faiths” can have “conflicts” with SCJ. “But confining this only to SCJ matter is surely ­misleading. You should let us know of the families who are claiming this so that we can all meet together to resolve the problem if there are any.”

Melbourne man “Steve” says his wife, who is 55 and not Asian, was lured into the cult through online “Bible study” and also cult plants at a Pentecostal church in bayside Melbourne.

“We were a perfectly normal married couple,” he says. “We have been married more than 30 years. Now that has all broken down. She is away from home up to 16 hours a day, seven days a week. She is controlled by the cult through her phone. She was a loving mother and a fantastic wife but now she believes I am the devil.”

Steve says his wife has no relationship now with their adult children. He says when he tries to talk to her about her new life in the cult, she refuses to listen.

She still lives in their home, but won’t talk to him and often leaves home at 3am, summoned by a text message.

He says she has begun seeing “secret messages” in movies and media. In 2015 he put a tracking device in her car to find out where she was going and then confronted a male cult leader, who told him: “You can’t destroy us.”

“I ask myself,” he says, “what is it that they tell these people that makes them so dedicated? What is the promise?”

Expat Australian academic and South Korean cult blogger Peter Daley, who teaches in Seoul, says SCJ is one of 50 “messianic” cults from South Korea, beginning with the Moonies, led by the Reverend Sun Myung-moon from 1954.

SCJ, he says, is the “most visible” of the modern-era cults and holds stadium events in Seoul. Allegations the group breaks up families and encourages young people to leave school, university and jobs gained traction in 2015, he says, and many Christian churches in South Korea have “Shincheonji Keep Out” signs on their doors.

Notorious South Korean sex cult Providence, or JMS is also known to have a strong foothold in Australia. JMS’s leader, Jeong Myeong-seok, is nearing the end of a 10-year jail sentence on multiple counts of rape.

Aron says many of the cults in Asia peddle “a very literal ­interpretation of the Bible based on taking some Bible stories as metaphors”. He says South Korea is a fertile breeding ground for cults because it is a ­“hierarchical” society right next to North Korea, which is “one big cult”.

South Korea is also a very Christian country “living in crisis” because of the nuclear threat from North Korea, leading people to seek avenues for hope.

Aron says there is a “disturbing” boom in cult organisations in Asia, in particular South Korea and China. He says the Australian government should be looking at the potential misuse of student visas by cult members who abandon their studies through cult affiliations but remain in Australia to ­recruit other students.

Sally and Mary fear it may be too late. Their missing sister, they fear, has been brainwashed.

“We just want her back,” says Sally, “as she was.”

Chris Johnston is a Melbourne-based journalist and co-author of The Family (Scribe, 2017).


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