South Korean ‘cult’ leader gets six years for beating followers in Fiji

Click to play video: 'Woman claims she escaped Korean ‘doomsday cult’'
Woman claims she escaped Korean ‘doomsday cult’
WATCH: Cecilia Lee describes her experience with the Grace Road Church in a 2018 interview with Global News – Oct 7, 2018

The leader of a South Korean religious group who trapped her followers in Fiji and subjected them to ritual beatings has been sentenced to six years in prison.

A South Korean court convicted Pastor Ok-Joo Shin of multiple charges on Monday, including violence, child abuse and fraud.

Five other church officials were also sentenced to shorter prison terms or suspended sentences at the hearing.

Shin is the founder and head of the Grace Road Church, a Christian-inspired doomsday group that relocated from South Korea to Fiji in 2014 to prepare for the end of the world. Shin convinced approximately 400 of her followers to move with her in order to run the church’s various agriculture and corporate operations in Fiji.

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Shin was arrested in July 2018 after video emerged showing her viciously beating and verbally abusing her followers at ceremonies in Fiji. Several ex-followers also accused her of taking away their passports so they couldn’t leave the tiny island country.

Ok-Joo Shin, head pastor of the Grace Road Church, is shown striking a person in this image from video published by SBS in South Korea. Seoul Broadcasting Service

The group’s secrets started spilling out following Shin’s arrest.

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Among her most public accusers was Seo-Yeon Lee, a Korean woman who said her entire family sold their belongings and moved to Fiji to join the church.

Lee told Global News last October that her mother lured her to Fiji and allegedly took her passport away in order to “save” her by bringing her into the church. Lee said she escaped the group, although they pursued her and allegedly tried to harass her after she returned to South Korea.

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“It presents itself as a harmless church — a religious organization that has all these businesses — but it’s a complete façade,” Lee told Global News at the time. “Grace Road is a cult.”

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On Friday, Lee said she was glad to learn of Pastor Shin’s sentence.

“I can sleep a bit easier at night knowing she’s behind bars,” she told Global News.

The South Korean court ruled Monday that Shin carried a “very heavy” responsibility for the beatings she and her lieutenants dished out to followers in their “ground thrashing” rituals at the church. Video of these thrashings shows Shin slapping people across the face, dragging them around, and cutting off their hair.

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Several of Shin’s former followers have also accused her of compelling family members to attack one another in these “ground thrashing” rituals.

“The accused has absolute authority over the followers, and all criminal acts including ground thrashing were unable to be carried out without her directions,” the Anyang sub-court of the Suwon District Court said in a statement on Monday.

Grace Road is one of several Christian-inspired “doomsday” groups to emerge in South Korea over the last few decades, religion professor Donald Baker, of the University of British Columbia, told Global News last year.

“They expect the world to end soon, and therefore they cut off all their worldly ties and just sit and wait for Christ to return,” Baker said. “[Shin] found a ‘safe’ place for believers to go. She says the Bible told her it’s Fiji.”

Grace Road has denied accusations that it is a “cult.” The group also denied that Lee ever visited its facility in Fiji, although it did acknowledge her family members were part of the church.

The group did not comment on Shin’s conviction. However, several followers who attended the trial said they were upset by the verdict.

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“This is outrageous,” one female follower shouted at journalists, according to the South China Morning Post. “Tell [the victims] to stop lying. Knock it off. We are all angry.”

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