New Zealand women are being targeted by a religious movement hunting spiritual brides for a convicted serial rapist.
South Korean organisation Jesus Morning Star is recruiting young women in universities, shopping centres and churches here - often by promising them lucrative modelling contracts. But the group, which uses multiple aliases, ultimately wants members to be "purified" by having sex with their leader Jung Myung-seok.
he University of Auckland has issued a warning to student groups, and the Presbyterian Church of Auckland says its members are also being targeted. At least 10 New Zealand women have been taken on trips to Korea by the group, the Weekend Herald understands.
Two women who have left the group say the experience has left them psychologically and emotionally scarred.
A 22-year-old University of Auckland student, who did not want to be named for fear of reprisal, said she joined the group after a woman approached her on Queen St.
"She told me I'm beautiful and asked if I wanted to join a Christian modelling agency that will focus on inner beauty," said the student, who is of European descent.
"Along with photoshoots and fashion shows, we also had to attend a Bible study course."
She was asked to wake up at to be part of the group, but it was an instruction she did not follow.
"The Bible classes started quite normally, but a few sessions on we were introduced to Joshua as a prophet, and then as the new messiah," she said.
"I was constantly asked to write to Joshua in prison, asking questions and telling him about myself. I was also not allowed to meet other men from the group."
The student said the photo sessions usually had a bridal theme, where the models would be dressed in white. Seven months after joining, the group asked her to fly to Seoul to visit Jung in Daejon prison. She decided at that point to cut contact with the group, and turned to the university chaplain for help.
She said it made her "shudder" to think that her photos had been sent to Jung in prison.
The student said, except one, none of the leaders she met in the group here in Auckland were Korean.
The group, often referred to as a cult or quasi-Christian sect, was founded in 1980 by Jung, who is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence in Seoul for raping and molesting his followers.
Of those recruited from New Zealand, some are believed to have become "reapers" to help the search for new brides.
Rev Dr Carolyn Kelly, chaplain at the University of Auckland, said JMS had been active for "quite some time" at the university and there were grave concerns for safety of female students.
"We know this because we've had personal stories from people who've been recruited," Kelly said.
"The front (used by the group) varies, usually it's like a dance school, modelling course or athletics group...they target attractive, committed young women particularly those with the Christian faith."
She believed the recruiters "infiltrate" the university by signing up for courses, but their motive was recruitment.
"I know of enough individuals to be concerned, and there's probably plenty of others I don't know about," Kelly said. "We know there are so-called bible study groups that are meeting, and know several clusters of up to 20 who meet regularly."
A parent support group for those whose children have been recruited or impacted has also been set up at the university.
The university has issued a written warning to its student clubs saying the Morning Star group used a modelling school as a front. It was also known by other names including Nikau Church and Providence Church.
"Several students mentioned that they were pressured into attending Bible studies and meetings," the warning said.
"Once committed...students were then pressured to donate, travel overseas, and attend meetings for other associated groups."
Another woman who was recruited told the Weekend Herald members were taught that Jung was the new Messiah. He had been falsely accused, persecuted and thrown into prison - just like Jesus Christ - she was told.
Recruitment activities are being stepped up, she says, because Jung is due to be released from jail in the next few months.
"Virgin recruits are preferred because they meant to be heavenly brides for Joshua," she said.
Followers had to follow a ritual that enforced sleep deprivation and were encouraged to cut family ties.
Presbyterian Church spokesman Rev Wayne Toleafoa, moderator of Northern Presbytery said the church had recently become aware of the group making attempts to recruit members from within an Auckland church.
"Cults typically recruit through deception, fear, intimidation and controlling or cutting access to friends and relatives," he said.
He said the matter was of "deep concern" and the church would be taking steps to raise awareness of the issue among church leaders and members in the coming days and weeks.
"Anecdotal evidence suggests that they may also be recruiting in other major cities," Toleafoa said.
The Weekend Herald approached the New Zealand Morning Star leader for comment. She arranged a later time to meet, but did not turn up.
Massey University expert on religion Peter Lineham said the worrying thing was the sexual end game.
"The cult appears to be associated with disturbing sexual exploitation of vulnerable young women throughout the world - particularly for people in boarding hostels and foreign students who are lonely find themselves induced to become involved in the cult."
Jung, a former member of the Unification Church also known as the Moonies, fled to Taiwan, Hong Kong and China following accusations against him by South Korean police of rape, fraud and embezzlement. He was arrested by China police in May 2007.
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