Korean prosecutors will chase the leader of world’s largest Christian congregation for allegedly stealing tens of billions of won in worshippers’ money and underpaying taxes
June 10, 2013 Leave a comment
Pastor Cho in trouble
Korean Christianity’s illness befalls Full Gospel Church
By Kim Tong-hyung
Prosecutors will chase the leader of world’s largest Christian congregation for allegedly stealing tens of billions of won in worshippers’ money and underpaying taxes.
Their decision to indict Cho Yong-gi, founder and pastor of the Yoido Full Gospel Church, on Saturday was another kick in the teeth for the country’s mighty but increasingly unpopular protestant church, frequently described as greedy, dishonest and socially regressive. Cho and some members of the church’s senior leadership have fallen out spectacularly in recent years as the 77-year-old minister came under constant accusations of corruption and nepotism. A group of church elders in 2011 filed a complaint with prosecutors claiming that Cho diverted more than 20 billion Korean won (about $18 million) in the church’s fund to acquire the stocks of a company owned by his son, Hee-jun, at prices dramatically higher than market value in 2002. The younger Cho, former chairman of the church-affiliated newspaper Kookmin Ilbo, currently serving a jail term for an unrelated financial crime, had sustained heavy losses from stock investments then.
In wrapping up their highly-anticipated investigation, officials at the Seoul Central District Office now claim that Cho’s alleged embezzlement has caused the church nearly 16 billion won (about $14 million) in damages. The financial maneuvering also allowed Cho to evade around 3.5 billion won in tax payment, they said.
Cho, who was summoned for questioning last month, has been denying the allegations and accusing the church elders of smear campaign.
”While the church’s financial manager had noted Cho that acquiring stocks that the church didn’t need could create problems in the future, Cho told him to push through, saying that his son was in a difficult situation. He told him to execute the process quietly,’’ said a prosecution spokesman.
Cho founded Yoido Full Gospel Church in 1958 and it now claims more than 450,000 followers. His proteges have built their own ”disciple churches’’ across the country, creating a congregation of around a near million, with Cho as the leader.
The controversy surrounding Cho is a public relations setback for the protestant church, which continues to wield political clout but has seen the elephants in the room become a herd.
Ever since Syngman Rhee began the country’s very first parliamentary meeting with a prayer in 1948, the protestant faithful has enjoyed a close access to power. This coincided with the rapid expansion and material success of protestant churches _ the biggest among them beginning to behave like business organizations _ as they grew as a central presence in conservative politics and the government’s anti-communist drive in the 1970s and 80s.
Currently, 111 of Korean lawmakers are protestant Christians, accounting for 37 percent of all National Assembly members. This is nearly a double of the 19 percent share protestant churchgoers have in the country’s religious population. In comparison, there are 73 Catholic and 42 Buddhist lawmakers.
But while the protestant church has remained a political heavyweight, its social influence continues to erode. The number of churchgoers has been dwindling, more quickly among the younger generation, and contributions have been decreasing year after year.
Numerous surveys, even those conducted by protestant church groups, have indicated that protestant leaders are doing the worst job among all religious leaders in earning the public’s respect. A survey by the Christian Ethics Movement showed there were more people who distrusted the protestant church than those who did for three consecutive years through 2010.
It didn’t help that the country’s biggest churches have been embroiled in a slew of scandals in recent years, which featured a buffet of financial crimes and earthly sins.
As seen in Cho’s case, pastors have been criticized in particular for considering their churches as private assets. A large number of ministers, including Somang Church’s Kwak Seon-hee, Chunghyun Church’s Kim Chang-in and Kyougseo Church’s Hong Jae-chul, who now heads the Christian Council of Korea (CCK), have touched off controversies by appointing their children as their successors.
And where would the Korean power elite be without sex scandals? Chun Byoung-wook, the pastor at the Samil Presbyterian Church from 1993 through 2010, was kicked out after being accused of molesting more than eight female members. That didn’t keep him from opening a new church in Seoul’s Hongdae area.
The protestant church has been handling adversity with ineptitude and comical ill-grace. Hong’s CCK, the country’s most powerful protestant church lobby, released a statement last year defending the nepotistic succession of churches, claiming that churches should be allowed to be run by different values than the rest of the society, which it said was ruled by ”humanism and irrationality.’’
Facing a crisis from within, it seems that the churches amplifying imaginary external fears to divert the attention from their problems and galvanize their followers. In doing so, they are making the classic Confucian mistake of confusing the realms of law and private morality.
For the moment, the CCK has successfully derailed the political efforts to introduce new anti-discrimination legislation, maintaining that criticizing a person for their sexual orientation is a right. Hong had promised fire and brimstone for any lawmaker attempting to push equality for gays and lesbians and even accused same-sex advocates as North Korea sympathizers.
Homosexuals shouldn’t be treated as legal equals with heterosexuals because that would be equivalent to encouraging gay sex, the CCK said. This is the same group that forced Seoul education authorities to scrap a human-rights ordinance that prohibited discrimination against under-aged students with children because, of course, that would be promoting teenage pregnancy.
”The status of protestant church has been retained by its close access to power and the political decision-making process than support from the masses. This has allowed them an ability to develop their opinions into social issues and influence the making of social systems,’’ said Kim Jin-ho, a reformist pastor.