A cult leader arrested in Korea has been accused of forcing devotees into slave labour in Fiji. And the Fijian government is staying tight-lipped about their own links to the Grace Road Church. Jamie Tahana writes for RNZ Pacific.
There’s an apocalypse coming and only one place will escape it: Fiji, the so-called “centre of the world as promised in the Bible”.
Well, that’s what South Korea’s Grace Road Church and its founder, Shin Ok-ju, has preached to hundreds of followers, many of whom have cashed in and moved to Fiji for salvation.
But the promised land took a darker turn earlier this month when Ms Shin and three others were arrested in Seoul and charged with the enslavement of some 400 followers.
Korean authorities said that when church members arrived in Fiji, their passports were seized and some were forced to endure violent rituals. Many more were either forced to work on a plantation or at several other church-run businesses.
Those businesses, which South Korean prosecutors said were the front for a violent cult, were widely endorsed and supported by the highest levels of Fiji’s Government. Last year, it received a Prime Minister’s Business Award.
In their announcement, Korean authorities said those who were forced to work were watched over by “guardians,” who were personally selected by Ms Shin to prevent the followers from leaving.
While in Fiji, prosecutors said, they were forced to perform ritual beatings on one another, which Ms Shin said was done to avoid punishment from God. A father was forced to hit his son more than 100 times, while another was beaten so badly they have lasting brain damage, they said.
Eventually, five people managed to escape and contact South Korean authorities.
Grace Road Church, in a statement, denied the allegations, calling itself a victim of slander. The Fiji Government has not responded to requests for comment.
The Grace Road Church was founded by Pastor Shin Ok-ju in 2002, said Professor Tark Ji-il, an expert in Korean cults from Busan University. The church had a mission to craft a world where, in her words, “only God is God”.
She preached that there was an imminent famine, and her followers needed to find and prepare a new home for the second coming of Jesus.
The church was radically different in its interpretation of the Bible, Professor Tark said, and as it grew it came under increasing scrutiny from South Korea’s Christian circles.
However, in a country with an abundance of cults, Grace Road never really gained significant traction. Its power and reach paled in comparison to, say, Choe Tai-min’s Church of Eternal Life, whose links with former President Park Guen-hye and some of the country’s biggest companies led to Ms Park’s downfall and imprisonment in 2016.
Despite its small stature, Professor Tark said Grace Road still managed to amass hundreds of followers. In the past few years, it became increasingly scrutinised by the country’s Christian circles, and was in 2014 officially isolated as a heresy group.
While it wasn’t the largest, Professor Tark said Grace Road shared similarities with many other Korean cults.
“Firstly, absolute obedience to the religious leader; secondly, wrong interpretation of the Bible; and thirdly, teaching of the imminent second coming of Jesus Christ; and lastly, provision of the place for the final shelter,” he said.
“One thing different is that Shin Ok-ju chose Fiji as the final shelter, while others generally choose Korea as the final shelter,” he said.
A Fijian Embrace
But if South Korea was looking upon Grace Road Church with increasing suspicion, then the opposite appeared to be the case in Fiji.
The Church first lay its roots there in 2014 – at the same time it was being ostracised in South Korea – and since then, it has grown something of a small business empire, with various layers of government endorsement and support.
This was soon after Ms Shin was sued in New York for US$6 million by a man with schizophrenia who said she supervised his strapping down for 10 days as part of a healing treatment. He alleged the restraints cut the blood flow to his legs, one of which later required amputation for gangrene.
According to Grace Road’s website, a missionary for the church was sent around the world with a one-way ticket to find the land that will survive the famine, as promised in the Bible. After scouting 60 countries, they landed in Fiji, with its warm climes and fertile soil. This was the prophesised land.
“Fiji divides into two syllables – Fi and Ji,” said Professor Tark. “In Korean characters, Fi means ‘escape’ or ‘shelter’ and Ji means ‘place’ or land’, so it’s interesting, isn’t it?”
To fulfil this prophecy, Grace Road took out a 50-year lease on a plot of land in Navua, to the south of Suva, where it started planting rice to prepare for the famine. According to a 2014 report in the Fiji Sun newspaper, it received “tremendous support” from the Ministry of Agriculture, although it’s not clear what this support entailed.
It developed its farm with intensive methods, modern technology and cut-throat efficiency, sending vast quantities into the local market and employing some 100 locals.
It has also cultivated relationships with several government ministers, who have attended launches and other Grace Road events, as well as spoken effusively about its presence in Fiji.
Last year, Grace Road won the Prime Minister’s International Business Award in the primary industries category.
The awards’ organisers said: “Grace Road Group successfully demonstrates how innovative farming methods, passion and a strong desire for quality can lead to excellence. Since its establishment … the group has focussed on developing its rice production for Fiji to ultimately become self-sufficient.”
In a picture that was posted to Twitter, but has been deleted since Ms Shin’s arrest, Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama is seen smiling with several Grace Road representatives.
Beyond the farm, the Grace Road Group spread its roots into various branches of Fiji industry. It opened a chain of restaurants, a laundromat, a salon, a hardware store and other businesses. It even created a construction arm, which pitched in to help after the devastation wrought by Cyclone Winston in 2016.
That construction arm has won several lucrative contracts, including with the government. It currently holds the tender for an extension at the presidential palace on Suva’s waterfront, as well as to upgrade the Prime Minister’s official residence.
But not everybody embraced it so openly.
In 2016, the Fiji Methodist Church – the country’s largest denomination – issued a statement warning members to be wary about Grace Road, labelling it a cult.
A spokesperson for the church, Wilfred Regunamada, said the church released a circular after it was warned by its sister branch in South Korea. But there were worrying signs already, he said.
“Some of our friends have said that people who work for [Grace Road], they work in fear,” he said. “There is like a fear of doing something wrong and something will happen. A decision has been made for them.”
The Fiji government has not responded to requests for comment, but the Attorney General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, has been quoted by Fiji media saying that Ms Shin’s arrest will have no effect on business in Fiji.
But Mr Regunamada said the Fiji Government needs to do more than that, and fully explain its connections with Grace Road Church and whether or not it had any inkling of what’s been alleged by South Korean authorities.
“There is nothing that the government talks about investigating or looking deep into it, but [instead praise] how they have been investing here,” he said. “That is the way we see it: There is a relationship between this organisation and the people who are leading the nation.”
In a statement, Grace Road Church denied the allegations against its founder, labelling itself a victim of slander.
“[They] have created unspeakable lies about passport confiscation, forced labour, incarceration and violence,” it read. “Because we are enraged by blasphemy of the name of God and dishonouring our reverend and GR Group, 400 of us want to speak up that all these are not true.”
The Group, which has made no secret about its plantation and business operations being in preparation for armageddon, accused those who laid the complaint of treachery and betrayal.
“Because our reverend has been leading the biblical reformation … she has been attacked and slandered by those who speak lies different from the Bible,” it said. “They were joined by the ex-members, who disagreed with our mission and vision and pursued their own greed, and made up all the lies.”
On Friday, RNZ Pacific received an email from somebody called Angela, with Grace Road letterhead, who said she wanted to “testify the truth” in a statement that echoed that of the Church’s official one.
Angela said she went to Fiji in July 2015 “with great joy and happiness”.
“I was never told, nor forced to go there. I was never told, nor forced to work. I was never held there against my will, nor did anyone ever touch me in a manner of violence.
“I am deeply saddened and outraged by hearing these slanderous, vicious and utterly despicable lies being told through the media. They are blaspheming the name of God,” she said.
“God will reveal the truth in his time.”
For now, though, Ms Shin remains in custody in South Korea facing a multitude of charges.
The authorities there said their immediate concern was the 400 people they say were stranded. But there were worries they could be guarded by some of Ms Shin’s more strident followers – the “guardians”.
The police in Fiji said they were also investigating the Grace Road Group, but it was unclear what involvement they had before Ms Shin’s arrest.
Professor Tark added that repatriation would likely be difficult because many of the followers may not be willing to admit to their situation, and are unlikely to view themselves as being enslaved.
“It’s going to be difficult for her followers to accept the situation they are facing,” he said. “Accepting what happened to them is to admit their choice or their belief was not correct.”
“So I think for a while they will deny or avoid the reality, not for Shin Ok-ju, but for themselves.”
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.