The sub-tropical island of Jeju, off South Korea’s southern coast, was for decades a holiday getaway and honeymoon destination for South Koreans. More recently, Jeju has offered visa-free access in order to attract Chinese tourists, but its status has also lured refugees: Last year, several hundred Yemeni asylum seekers arrived on the island.
Read Part 1 of this report here.
In July 2018, amid national angst about the Yemenis’ arrival, the backdoor access through which asylum seekers could enter the mainland via Jeju was closed by legal changes. What has previously gone largely unreported is that Jeju had, prior to the Yemenis’ arrival, quietly provided access to South Korea for 997 Chinese Church of Almighty God (CAG) members fleeing persecution in China, where their underground church is considered a cult. Currently, 39 CAG members are stranded on the isle, though the majority are on the mainland.
While CAG, an underground religion, has no brick-and-mortar structures in China, it boasts four churches in South Korea. The biggest, where church members offered their testimony to Asia Times, sits in an industrial suburb in southern Seoul that is also home to a community of Chinese migrant workers.
It is a modern building, but although CAG believers call it a church, there unusually is no central worship space; it looks more like an office building. Nor are there any priests: believers worship, alone or in small groups, at a small collection of pews for prayer. One room features an exhibition showcasing what appear to be photographs of torture and suppression; only on closer inspection do they prove to be highly realistic paintings.
Church members have a shy, quiet air. Though legally unable to work in South Korea, they appear prosperous, are modestly but well dressed and are armed with the latest smartphones. But they are vague on their incomes. One, “You Xin,” said she has subsisted since 2015 on a monetary gift from her mother. And clearly, there is a community fabric.
“They have a strong self-help movement among them,” said Rosita Soryte, president of the International Observatory on Religious Liberty of Refugees. “They are not on the streets.”
If their financial status is opaque, their status as Korean residents is precarious; not a single member has been granted refugee status. Many have been rejected and are appealing, or are re-applying. Some are facing deportation orders, though these orders can be extended on appeal.
“My impression is that in this part of the world there is a problem with refuges in general. Very few are accepted,” said Italian Massimo Introvigne, managing director of Center for the Studies on New Religions, who has championed CAG. “Refugees are not very popular in the US or EU, but still, in the statistics, the US and EU are much better than Korea or Japan.”
For CAG members, this is frustrating and worrisome. “The South Korean government thinks that even if you were arrested before, you would not necessarily be arrested again,” said church member “Xin Ling” (her church name, not her real name). “But it is stated on my prison certificate — I was arrested for religious reasons! I find it unbelievable that they would have to see me rearrested for proof.”
Local believers push back
Still, Soryte said that Korean officials are sympathetic listeners, and looking ahead Lee Il, a lawyer with Seoul’s Public Interest Law Firm who represents CAG members and other asylum seekers, is cautiously optimistic.
“Maybe this year, one or two members whose cases are very strong can be recognized as refugees and that will affect other members,” he said. Korean immigration authorities are aware of precedents, he added: CAG members have been granted asylum in Canada, the EU, New Zealand and the United States.
Local authorities do have concerns, Lee noted. “Korean immigration is worried that persons who are not religious may pretend to be members of CAG. Moreover, refugees status is a ‘delicate matter’ given that some Korean churches see CAG as a cult, and public opinion is that the church is ‘dangerous or weird’ .”
Although 183 CAG members have received deportation orders, none has yet been repatriated to China from South Korea.
While their legal status is thrashed out, they have received support from some local Christian groups, CAG members say, but are persecuted by others — a situation Introvigne considers “very peculiar.” A prominent voice has been raised by Oh Myung-ok, who runs a website, www.church-heresy.com, and a publishing company, Big Fountain.
Church members speak of Oh in hushed voices. Asia Times was shown how CAG asylum seekers have been exposed: Photographs of them have been reproduced in a magazine she published.
It is unclear how Oh obtained those photographs. A Chinese-Korean member said that he never used the photograph reproduced in the magazine anywhere but in his passport because “It’s so ugly!” “Our passports are in the hands of immigration officers, so she either obtained them from the South Korean government or from the Chinese government,” added “Linda,” another CAG member, who uses her spiritual name rather than her real name.
They also claim Oh has coordinated with CAG believers’ family members, who have arrived from China to protest outside their Seoul church. The relatives were coerced into making visits by Chinese authorities, church members insist. Nine protests have been held outside the CAG church since 2016.
Austrian Peter Zoehrer, director general of the Forum for Religious Freedom Europe, witnessed one protest in September 2018 on a research visit to the church. “There was a full-blown demonstration, screaming and shouting,” Zoehrer said. “On video footage you can clearly see how Ms Oh practically commands the demonstrators, telling them what to say and what to do: one man receives a script from her, and yells through a megaphone, and she orders them to lie down in front of the vehicle.”
Zoehrer alleges that Oh is collaborating not only with Korean anti-cult groups, but also with Chinese authorities. Bitter Winter, a website affiliated with Introvigne which reports on Chinese religious freedom, says it has discovered a Chinese official document that proves the involvement of Beijing in Seoul protests.
Still, CAG members, aware of their shaky status in Korea, have been reluctant to involve authorities. “The demonstrators’ wish was to provoke CAG members, but they did not react,” said Soryte. “They played it wisely.”
Oh agreed to grant Asia Times an interview. She operates her enterprises from a second-floor office in southern Seoul that is crowded with publishing materials. Upon arrival, Oh photographed the journalistic credentials of the Asia Times correspondent and a Taiwanese reporter who had accompanied him, then questioned both on their attitudes toward immigrants.
After asking them about their experience writing on religious cults, she insisted that the reporters first speak to relatives of church members in China.
An uncertain future
She then concluded the brief “interview”, though in response to parting questions Oh denied operating with Chinese authorities and said she was facing no legal action from CAG members. A CAG member disputes this, saying that she is suing Oh for revealing her identity in the magazine.
Before the short interview, the credentials of both reporters, with comments on their professional competence, appeared on Oh’s website church heresy.
For CAG members in South Korea, the future is uncertain. Supporters urge the world community and associated wider Christian and religious communities to overlook the unorthodox nature of the church and view the situation through the prism of human rights.
“We are not protecting a religion, we are protecting people,” said Soryte, who adds that CAG members are not economic migrants. “They are not seeking a better life, they were persecuted, or know they will be [if repatriated],” she added.
Is membership in the Church of Almighty God worth the multiple tribulations — arrest, torture, separation from family, exile from country, hostility in Korea — that so many of its adherents suffer?
The answer of Ling, the torture victim, is reflective of true believers in any time, any place.
“I suffered persecution because of my belief in God,” she said. “Not matter how much I am persecuted, I am determined to believe in God.”