When Han Lee returned to Melbourne after four years overseas in 2017, he was eager for friends, connection and a local church.
During a Christian event at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, he was pleasantly surprised when a young Korean woman sat next to him, struck up a conversation and invited him to a barbecue the next weekend.
There, two men invited him to a Bible study group – a couple of two-hour sessions a week, full of engaging interpretations of the Bible that Han hadn’t heard before.
Within weeks, he found himself in five-hour classes than ran past midnight most nights of the week.
“Suddenly you don’t have time for your other friends. My family got used to me skipping dinner every night,” he said.
Only after six months, when he passed a rigorous exam, was Han told he was part of the Korean religious cult Shincheonji.
This week, Shincheonji and its 215,000 claimed members in South Korea have been thrust into the spotlight as the sect became a hotbed of the country’s red alert coronavirus outbreak and thousands of members went into hiding.
About 68 per cent of the country’s minimum 1261 confirmed cases have been linked to Shincheonji. The group’s iron-fist enforcement of attendance and rules such as the forbidding of face masks have made for highly infectious conditions.
South Korean Lee Man-Hee, who continues to lead the Christianity offshoot he created in 1984, espouses himself as the immortal, second coming of Jesus.
Few Australians are aware that Shincheonji has operated a secretive branch here for several years.
Shincheonji appears to have hundreds of Australian members at any time with class sizes up to 100.
In Melbourne, hidden under deceptive recruiting techniques and teachings that deify its 88-year-old leader, Shincheonji targets, then overwhelms, the lives of unknowing recruits – often Asian international students and those, like Han, with few local connections.
Lee Man-Hee appears to have visited Australia last year, appearing in a bizarre YouTube video of Australians completing their six-month “passover” – an official acceptance into Shincheonji.
“Shincheonji is life, the source of my strength,” a 22-year-old university student from Sydney says in the video.
“God and Jesus speak only to our chairman … now this word has been preached all over the world, even though many people have betrayed our chairman, whom God is with.”
In his 40-minute sermon, Lee Man-Hee, wearing a white suit with yellow tie, congratulates the graduates, interprets Bible verses and damns those who disagree.
“When you see these people they are alive and moving, but their hearts are dead,” he says.
Shincheonji’s most brazenly recruits individuals on the streets of Melbourne’s CBD.
Normally young and from eastern Asia, Shincheonji recruiters move in pairs of “eyes” – like the two men who showed an interest in Han.
Earlier this month, seizing on the period when international students are yet to start university, they were seen politely asking people walking alone outside RMIT and Melbourne Central to complete a survey on “how happy you are with your life from one to 10”.
Lydia, who did not want her last name published, was 19 when a woman from Singapore and a man from Korea approached her at Melbourne Central in 2017.
“They asked whether I was interested in going to a multicultural event nearby, with K-pop singing and dancing,” Lydia said.
“I went, because I had nothing else to do during the summer. Not long after, the girl texted me and asked whether I was interested in joining a Bible study group.”
In the group, Lydia felt as if every time she spoke with a new class member, one of her recruiters – her “eyes” – would appear and join the conversation. Like Han, she was bombarded with messages any time she skipped a class.
Lydia’s other friend group in Melbourne was her university Bible study class. Soon, her Singaporean “eye” was telling her those friends weren’t to be trusted.
“Mum couldn’t reach me because I didn’t pick up her calls in the Bible classes. My teachers said that we students now knew the truth, but maybe our parents didn’t and could try to pull us away,” she said.
Teachers stress an intense intellectual interpretation of the Bible, playing on its parables.
In 2017 Mars Capone, now 38, signed up for Korean lessons via Gumtree, where two friendly Korean women quickly struck up a connection. A lifelong Christian born in Germany, he was soon invited to Bible study classes, where he met Han.
“The knowledge was so powerful that every single class for me was mind-blowing,” Mars said.
Han, Mars and Lydia speak of a charismatic head teacher, Kim, who currently hosts classes in South Melbourne. Classes switch location frequently and have been taught in Richmond, Kensington, North Melbourne, RMIT and the Australian Catholic University in Fitzroy. Shincheonji also has a presence in Sydney and Brisbane.
Teachers deflected personal questions or queries about which church they belonged to, the trio say.
“When I asked Kim what she did, she would say ‘why does it matter? We are here to learn the truth, not speak about me’,” Mars said.
The cult has no contactable head office in Australia and when The Age contacted four alleged Shincheonji teachers in Melbourne only one responded. When asked if he was part of Shincheonji, the man said “is that Chinese?” and denied involvement.
In South Korea, where about 30 messianic Christianity variations exist, Shincheonji has a more mainstream following and is believed to own a sizeable real estate portfolio that appears to fund its overseas operations.
Its motivation in Australia, as in countries including New Zealand, England and India, is to recruit the 144,000 teachers of Shincheonji that Lee Man-Hee promises to take with him to heaven on the day of judgment.
Rudy Nikkerud, a pastor at Melbourne’s Planetshakers Pentecostal church, says reports of Shincheonji targeting its thousands of international students have escalated in recent months.
“We, like others, encourage an open and free church experience,” he said.
“We tell people that if anyone is trying to lead you down a path of cutting people off, you should ask which church they are connected with or speak to some friends about it.”
When Han told his fellow members that he was leaving, the “eyes” arrived at his home within hours and debated with him until 2am, but they were too late.
“My last six months had been a lie. After so much deception, you don’t feel good.”
Lydia, after four months, found herself skipping university, trapped by the anxiety of missing Shincheonji classes and drifting away from her other friends.
“One day I was having a really, really hard time. I was depressed …I had suicidal thoughts and was admitted to hospital,” she says.
Her mother flew from Malaysia to ensure she stopped attending classes.
“The Singaporean girl looked for me after I quit, she knew where I lived so she came to my place and texted me about it. Not long after I cancelled my phone number … I failed my university subjects and moved back to Malaysia.
“I lost a year of my life.”
Michael is a reporter for The Age.