Shincheonji members protest after the murder.

A Hate Crime Against Shincheonji

A man murdered his wife, a Shincheonji devotee, and her sister-in-law after consulting with an anti-Shincheonji pastor—who now tries to blame the victim.

by Massimo Introvigne

Shincheonji members protest after the murder.
Shincheonji members protest after the murder.

On June 16, 2022, a man knocked at the door at the office of his wife’s younger brother in Jeongeup, North Jeolla Province, South Korea. The man and his wife were legally divorced, but due to economic reasons they had still shared the same apartment. However, violence by the husband had become intolerable and the wife escaped to the house of her brother and his wife. The man entered the office of his brother-in-law and demanded that his wife come back to his home immediately. When she refused, he went into a killing frenzy. He killed his ex-wife and her sister-in-law, and seriously wounded his ex-wife’s brother.

Korean public opinion was shocked by the crime, and demanded severe punishment for the assassin. He emerged in interviews with relatives and friends as a sordid character, who lived off his wife’s salary. He also tried to persuade her to have extramarital affairs by stating that he got sexually aroused when picturing his wife’s intimate relationships with others.

However, two days after the murder, a Christian TV network called CBS (Christian Broadcasting System) managed to shortly interview the man when he was being taken back to prison by the police after the judicial interrogation, and to have him state that he had committed the crime because the wife was a member of a Christian new religious movement, Shincheonji. “It is because of the Shincheonji religion,” he said.

CBS has a story of virulent attacks against groups it labels as “heresies” and “cults.” It openly supports deprogramming, i.e., kidnapping of adult members of new religious movements, particularly Shincheonji, usually by their parents. They then detain their daughters and sons in secluded places, where they try to break their faith and induce them to leave the “cults” with the help of self-styled “experts” who are Christian pastors.

Shincheonji post-murder protests denounced the role of CBS.
Shincheonji post-murder protests denounced the role of CBS.

Deprogramming has been declared illegal in all democratic countries, but is still practiced in South Korea. More than 3,000 members of Shincheonji have been kidnapped in South Korea for purposes of deprogramming. Two female Shincheonji  devotees have died in connection with deprogramming. In 2007, Kim Sun-Hwa (1959–2007) was beaten with a metal bar and killed by her ex-husband, whom she had divorced after the deprogramming instigated by him had failed.

In 2018, Gu Ji-In (1992–2018) was bound and gagged by her father while she was trying to escape deprogramming, which caused suffocation and eventually death. The incident generated massive street protests and was mentioned by the U.S. Department of State, who asked South Korean authorities to put a halt to the illegal practice of deprogramming. To no avail, as deprogramming still goes on today.

In the Jeongeup murder case, CBS tried to strike preventively, before the Christian pastors involved in deprogramming and the media spreading hate speech against Shincheonji, including CBS itself, might be blamed for what happened. It came out that the day before the crime the assassin had consulted with Pastor Oh Myeong-hyeon, a deprogrammer and “heresy counselor” associated with a coercive conversion facility called Heresy Research Center.

Certainly Pastor Oh did not suggest that the man kills his wife, but he admitted he had advised him against meeting her in a public place such as a coffee shop (from which she could have easily escaped) and had excited his hatred of Shincheonji.

Another moment of the anti-CBS protests.
Another moment of the anti-CBS protests.

While personal motivations certainly played a role, perhaps the main role, in the heinous crime, Pastor Oh and CBS tried to switch the positions of victims and perpetrators. Shincheonji was the victim in the incident, yet Oh and Christian media called for Shincheonji to be punished. Without shedding a tear for the victims, they claimed with a twisted and perverse logic that, had the wife not joined Shincheonji, the poor assassin would not have killed her and would not have to spend the rest of his life in jail, a likely outcome of his trial.

This is a spectacular reversal of truth, justice, and fairness. It cannot be tolerated. Beyond its personal motivations, the Jeongeup murder is the poisonous fruit of a tree with three roots. The first is the illegal activities of the deprogrammers and the criminal business of forced conversions. It has been legally stopped in all other democratic countries. It should be stopped in South Korea too.

The second is the spread of fake news. Shincheonji and its leader, Lee Man Hee, have been accused of willingly spread COVID-19 after one female devotee was misdiagnosed with a common cold, dismissed from the hospital and sent home. This happened during the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis, and the medical staff did not think of the virus, particularly because she had not recently visited any foreign country. Before being correctly diagnosed with COVID-19, she attended church services and infected co-religionists.

When it learned of the incident, Shincheonji immediately moved all its services online. It was requested to supply the authorities a full list of its members. Although the request went beyond the law, it complied, and subsequent investigations found only minimal omissions and mistakes in a list of some 300,000 names.

In first and second degree, and on August 12, 2022, at the Supreme Court of South Korea Chairman Lee and Shincheonji were found not guilty of any breach of COVID-19 regulations. It was acknowledged they had in fact fully cooperated with the health authorities. Yet, those hostile to the movement continue to spread fake news that Shincheonji tried to sabotage the anti-COVID efforts. It is even alleged that its members gathered in crowded meetings believing that prayer would protect them from the virus—a total lie.

Thousands gathered to protest against the murder and the slander campaign that had targeted Shincheonji.
Thousands gathered to protest against the murder and the slander campaign that had targeted Shincheonji.

The third root of the violence is the hate speech against Shincheonji disseminated by Christian anti-heresy media, including CBS. In July, some 10,000 protesters attended rallies in front of the CBS headquarters demanding an apology. There was no apology, but the protesters were right. In 2011, I served as the Representative of the OSCE, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, of which the U.S. and Canada are also participating states, for combating racism, xenophobia, and religious intolerance and discrimination. Hate speech and hate crimes were a crucial part of my portfolio. Not all those who are exposed to hate speech commit hate crimes. But some do.

The Jeongeup murder was a hate crime. The assassin’s ex-wife and her sister-in-law were not responsible for it and lost their precious lives. The murderer was responsible but those who excited his mind with anti-Shincheonji hate speech were not innocent either. Yes, South Korea needs a law, but not against Shincheonji or the so-called “cults.” It needs a law aligning South Korea with other democratic countries by outlawing the crime of deprogramming and forced conversion, and punishing hate speech against religious minorities.   

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