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Para Christo: Dangerous cult or safe sect?
Last month a warning was sent to members of churches across the Diocese of London, urging them to be vigilant following concerns relating to a group with links to an alleged cult. The warning claimed representatives were visiting parishes in the capital and offering prayer groups or Bible studies for young people. Premier Youth and Children’s Work took a look at Para Christo and its links to Shincheonji…
Type ‘Para Christo’ into Google and you won’t find a lot. If you translate the words into English you get ‘For Christ’. While it may seem fairly harmless, the Diocese of London was concerned enough to get the message out that this group should be avoided. In a statement to Premier Youth and Children’s Work, it said: “This group has no connection whatsoever with the Diocese of London and has no authority to promote itself among our churches. However, a number of concerns have been raised by parishes about the group’s activities and so a call for vigilance has been issued to all churches in the Diocese.”
So what exactly is the concern? While the diocese chose not to give further details, the warning which went out to churches mentioned the group’s links to the alleged cult known as Shincheonji (or SCJ), a group based in South Korea. SCJ’s leader Man-Hee Lee is known by supporters as ‘God’s advocate’. He reportedly set up the group in 1984 after claiming to have heard God calling him to be his ambassador on earth. His organisation now has 200,000 members.
Critics say the group works deceptively to draw in new members. They claim those within SCJ attend mainstream churches in an attempt to befriend Christians.
In a warning to churchgoers at St Mary’s in London, Rev John Peters said that’s when the problems can begin: “After the friendship is established they might invite you to a Bible study,” he wrote. “Over time they begin to advocate beliefs that amount to control and deception.” He went on to say that members are then often encouraged to cut ties with friends and family and some end up leaving jobs.
Cult | (kuhlt)
1. A system of religious veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure or object.
2. A relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or as imposing control over members.
3. A misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular thing.
Rev M Liam Steele worked as a missionary in South Korea between 2001 and 2016 and saw first-hand SCJ at work. In a blog for Premier Christianity, he said: “I first became exposed to SCJ while a small group leader at a major English ministry in Seoul. One of our group members told us that she was approached by a couple who offered to help her understand the Bible. She thought more Bible study would be a good thing and would often come back with questions about things that she had been taught, which were far from orthodox. A red flag was raised when she told my wife and I that it was only by attending this other church, and believing exactly what they taught her, that could she be saved.”
It is unknown how long Para Christo has been working in the UK, but it was registered by the Charity Commission as a religious organisation last summer.
Rev Nicky Gumbel from Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), one of London’s biggest churches, was one of the first leaders to issue a warning, claiming members of Para Christo had tried to recruit from within his church. Labelling the group a “deceptive and potentially dangerous cult” he said he was in contact with a number of other churches, in the UK and abroad, who have experience of the group’s actions.
Para Christo confirmed its links to SCJ in The Sunday Telegraph but rejected the use of the word ‘cult’, claiming its mission was to: “Spread the word of God”. Lawyers for the group also rejected claims of deception, lies and secrets claiming these to be the most common understandings about its work. They went on to criticise HTB for its response to the work of Para Christo, stating: “Our client feels incredibly disappointed that HTB, which we must assume has the same ultimate aim, has embarked on what appears to be a coordinated campaign against it by using such an emotive and baseless slur.”
The Diocese of London is encouraging churches who become aware of the actions of Para Christo to contact the Diocesan Safeguarding Team on 020 7932 1224. The diocese says it is already working closely with parishes where concerns have been raised.