Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Big Business of South Korea's Mega-Churches

KOREA has long been a hotbed of religiosity. Before a certain Kim Il Sung began having other ideas, Pyongyang (now the capital of North Korea) used to be known as “The Jerusalem of the East”. And in today’s Seoul, practitioners of traditional shamanism, Buddhism, Christianity and even cults such as the Unification Church (better known in the West as the Moonies), all have plenty of followers.

Many of them also have lots of money (not least because religious institutions are tax-exempt). The Protestant church, in particular, seems to have produced a tribe of flashy, mansion-dwelling pastors. This is partly a result of the character of Korean Protestantism: a common theme, for instance, at the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul is that a poor Christian is not a good Christian. However, it is also a result of the incentives created by the sheer size of some churches. Yoido itself ranks as the largest Christian congregation in the world, with over 1m members. Another, Somang Church, has hundreds of thousands of faithful, including South Korea’s president, Lee Myung-bak.

With all these people throwing their spare won into the collection plate, mega-churches have become big businesses. Yoido Full Gospel Church’s founder Cho Yong-gi, who has run the congregation since 1958, has family interests ranging from private universities to newspapers. Members of his church were once asked to pray for higher sales for one of his titles.

A pastor at a Seoul-based church of a mere 60,000 members notes that the likes of Yoido have become “so big, and with assets so huge, that human greed comes into play”. And in late September, following complaints by 29 church elders, prosecutors began investigating Mr Cho over the alleged embezzlement of 23 billion won ($20m) from Yoido’s funds. A documentary aired by MBC, a television station, claims that this money was used to buy property in America. The show also charged that Mr Cho’s wife sold a building constructed with collection money for her own gain. Its buyer was Hansei University—an institution where she also happens to be president. Mr and Mrs Cho deny the allegations.

Yoido Church’s founder is rarely out of the news in South Korea. In March he sparked a storm of criticism by claiming the earthquake and tsunami in Japan was “God’s warning” to a country that follows “idol worship, atheism, and materialism”.

He is also too political for some. When President Lee’s government drew up plans to legislate for Islamic sukuk bonds in South Korea, Mr Cho argued that this would aid “terrorists”, and that the president was forgetting the vital role the Protestant lobby had in electing him. Following concerted efforts by Mr Cho and other South Korean church leaders, the government blinked first, and the plan was dropped.

There are plenty of rank-and-file Christians in South Korea who do not indulge in the cathedralism of the mega-pastors. Many of the underground networks helping North Koreans on the run in China are organised by South Korean Christians. Refugees who reach South Korea are often cared for by church groups, and South Korean church aid-agencies are usually among the first to respond to natural disasters around the world, including the Japanese tsunami in March.

But in a country that thrives on group activities and collective bonding, as well as religion, Seoul is a natural home for mega-churches. The likes of Mr Cho, for all their flaws, provide something that millions of Koreans find irresistible. ◦

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