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The Shinchonji Church: Background information when reading The Incendiaries

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The Incendiaries

A Novel

by R O. Kwon

The Incendiaries by R O. Kwon X
The Incendiaries by R O. Kwon
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2018, 224 pages
    Jul 2019, 240 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte
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About this Book

The Shinchonji Church

This article relates to The Incendiaries

Print Review

Alleged Shinchonji cult leader Lee Man-HeeIn The Incendiaries, Phoebe Lin is gradually drawn into a fictional Christian cult called Jejah. South Korea is home to a few such apocalyptic religious cults, the most prominent among them being Shinchonji.

Shinchonji, whose full name is Shinchonji, Church of Jesus, the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony, was founded in 1984 by Lee Man-hee. Chairman Lee, as he is known, was himself a member of another South Korean cult, the Tent Temple Movement, which came to an abrupt end in the 1970s after its founder was accused of fraud.

Shinchonji members believe in a doomsday prophecy stating that the end is near and only they will be invited to heaven, as they are the chosen ones. The organization's name is taken from the Bible's Book of Revelations and means "new heaven and earth." Christianity is one of the dominant religions of South Korea, and recruitment for various denominations and churches is extremely competitive. Shinchonji is known to cast its net by infiltrating other church services and persuading congregants to attend a Bible study session. In an investigation by Public Radio International, a reporter found that such Bible study sessions were the gateway to indoctrination in the group. Members must go through a rigorous series of such sessions and tests before they can qualify to attend large sermons delivered on a biweekly basis in Seoul. The church is believed to have recruits all over the world, including in the United States.

Shinchonji is no different from most cults that operate under the authority of a central charismatic figure. Members believe that Chairman Lee has been granted immortality and he has no set plans for succession.

Another South Korean cult, Grace Road Church, operates under the belief that a coming famine will devastate the Korean peninsula and that, when the day of reckoning arrives, salvation is only to be found in Fiji. In August 2014, about 400 members of Grace Road moved to Fiji with its founder, Shin Ok-ju, who, according to several ex-members, confiscated their passports. Members of Grace Road Church are reportedly forced to endure a ritual called "threshing ground" where they beat each other, and they are told they will face God's wrath if they refuse. In 2018, three members of the church's leadership, including Shin Ok-ju were arrested on charges of incarceration and assault, and its Fiji compound was raided. In July 2019, Shin Ok-ju was found guilty and sentenced to six years in prison.

Alleged Shinchonji cult leader Lee Man-Hee, courtesy of The Korea Observer

Filed under Places, Cultures & Identities

Article by Poornima Apte

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Incendiaries. It originally ran in October 2018 and has been updated for the July 2019 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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