'Wait a second, am I in a cult?' Student reveals she was 'brainwashed' into joining secretive South-Korean Shincheonji church on University of Salford campus and ended up having her 'every move controlled'

Mail, UK/November 23, 2021

By Harriet Johnston

A student has revealed how she was 'brainwashed' into joining a South Korean cult who 'controlled what she did and who she saw' while on campus at university.

Jess, from Manchester, was 'vulnerable' having recently lost her father when she was approached by two strangers from the Shincheonji Church of Jesus at the University of Salford and invited to 'coffee with god'.

While the meetings simply began as weekly Bible study groups, things quickly evolved and soon Jess found the group was controlling who she saw and what she did.

Speaking to the BBC, she said she became a 'completely different person' while in the cult, explaining: 'Controlling others for me is really out of character, so that's how far in I'd gotten into being brainwashed.'
Jess, a former physiotherapy student, was recruited into church while on the campus of the University of Salford.

She explained how two strangers she thought were students approached her on campus and invited her to 'a coffee with god'.

Jess added: 'I'd gone through a massive loss of suddenly losing my dad and at that point I was already so vulnerable.

'They asked me, "Oh, are you a Christian?" From then on, we began to meet every week for just one-to-one Bible sessions.'

Jessi said she had no idea the pair were from the sect, Shincheonji, explaining: 'That is' the biggest deception and the biggest manipulation.'

The movement, which translates as 'new heaven and new earth,' was established in 1984 and describes its founder Lee as the 'Promised Pastor'.

He has widely been described by other Christian groups as a false prophet or a cult leader.

The group is apocalyptic and messianic in character, and has been described as a doomsday cult.The group is known for its aggressive, and deceptive proselytizing practices.
'To propagate their belief, they often approach their relatives and acquaintances or sneak to other churches without telling them they are Shincheonji members.'
However things quickly turned sinister for the student, as she described being in the church as 'absolute mind control.'

She revealed a buddy system was used to watch over new recruits, explaining: 'To know if someone is full engaging or not engaging and always finding a way to draw them in a lot more...just surveillance really.'

Jess attended intensive Shincheonji classes in a room at the university as well as attending a temple, located at the time in a business park.

She said: 'I became a completely different person. My mindset was completely different, I'd lost motivation in terms of my studies.

'All of my concentration was just on the activities of Shincheonji.'

Jess became so immersed in the sect that she started recruiting others.

Jess' university tutor Linda Hollingworth became concerned about her, explaining things felt off with the student.

She said: 'You were sort of missing quite a lot of sessions and not interacting and when I was asking your friends about where you were, they were saying they weren't seeing you either. It just felt wrong.'

But just as Jess began having doubts about the church, Shincheonji hit the news at the start of the pandemic.

In February 2020, it emerged that more than half of all South Korea's coronavirus cases could be linked to the secretive ultra-religious cult.

The outbreak of COVID-19 cases in Korea was initially centered in the city of Daegu after a 61-year-old Shincheonji member known as Patient 31 infected other church members causing the pandemic to surge in Daegu.

As the disease spread among Shincheonji's members and thousands of others, there was a national outcry against the group and by 22 February 2020, over 1.3 million South Korean citizens signed an online petition to the Blue House requesting the government to disband Shincheonji entirely.

As the news hit the headlines across the world, Jess said: 'That's the first time I'd ever seen Shincheonji being labelled as a cult.

'For a moment I just thought, "Woah wait a second, am I in a cult?"

'Because we were encouraged to not Google anything about Shincheonji which is something that we all followed.

'But from doing my own research about the organisation, I was really, really shocked.'

Feeling shaken by her discoveries, Jess went to see tutor Linda and her story came out.

With her tutor's help, she fled the city and deleted all of her contacts.

She said: 'Even from leaving Manchester early that morning there was still that feeling of fear and paranoia that someone was watching me. '

Jess studied remotely and went on to finish her degree, saying: 'I feel like I'm definitely in a much better place and I'm able to confidently share my story with others and just raise awareness.'

Meanwhile Rod Dubrow-Marshall, professor of psychology at the University of Salford, said: 'The group is of concern to people in the way it operates.

'I'm not saying that everyone is affected in the same way. but there's a number of instances of people losing contact with their loved ones, of giving up their jobs and their livelihoods.'

The university told the BBC it has rules about how religious groups can interact with students and they monitor this.

A statement from the University of Salford said: 'We encourage students to report if they or someone they know is subject to any coercion, manipulation or abuse whether domestically or in another setting.'

Meanwhile Shincheonji denied it is a harmful cult and said it does not groom, control, brainwash or manipulate members.

It said it is not secretive and its beliefs can be found online. People are told the church's name when Bible studies begin.

It said members don't have to devote huge amounts of time to the church and are not encouraged to neglect university.

Lee Man-Hee: The 'immortal' leader of a secretive cult that allegedly bullies its members into silence

  • Lee Man-Hee, now 88 years old, is the founder of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony.
  • His group has been accused by Christian authorities around the world as being a secret cult that infiltrates churches and 'deceives' to recruit.
  • Lee, whose cult has 74 churches in South Korea, is considered by 220,000 followers to be 'immortal' and even the second coming of Jesus Christ.
  • Very little is known about the cult, but it has been claimed that it is so strict and obsessed with secrecy that its members are bullied into silence.
  • Lee's critics charge him with self-promotion, such as his alleged trip to the UAE in 2015 to pose for photos and boost his credentials at home.
  • Others - often other religious authorities - claim that he is a 'false prophet'.
  • 'Shincheonji followers believe Lee Man-hee is immortal and has an eternal life,' said Ji-il Tark at Busan Presbyterian University in South Korea.

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