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Cho and his family accused of stealing megachurch funds

29 November 2013

By Peter McGill

Thronged: the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, South Korea

Thronged: the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, South Korea

THE claim of the Yoido Full Gospel Church to have the world's largest congregation has long attracted attention, but now it is in the spotlight for different reasons. The former leader of the South Korean Pentecostal church, which can seat 26,000 in its main auditorium in Seoul, and counts more than one million members worldwide, has been accused by church elders of misappropriating church funds.

Its co-founder and former chief pastor, David Yonggi Cho, is on trial for allegedly causing the church £9 million of damage in a stock deal, and evading £2 million in taxes.

A group of 28 elders, the "Prayer Meeting for Correcting the Church", who were expelled from the church after making accusations of financial irregularities, say that Mr Cho and his family have siphoned off hundreds of millions of pounds in church funds.

A severance payment of £11.6 million that Mr Cho received when he stepped down as chief pastor in 2008 was never voted on by any body in the church, the group's investigation has found. In addition, what happened to about £35 million in "missionary expenses" paid out between 2004 and 2008 is unknown.

It is alleged that Mr Cho kept £57 million out of £95 million borrowed for building a Centre for Communications and Mass Media (CCMM) near the Full Gospel Church in Yoido, an island in Seoul's Han River; and that companies managed by his eldest son, Hee-jun, received building work for the CCMM worth £26 million.

Cho Hee-jun was charged last year by prosecutors with causing £9 million in damages by selling shares to the church for four times their market value. The elders allege that he appropriated a total of £140 million in church assets, including £20 million in "lifetime subscriptions" to the church newspaper, Kookmin Ilbo, which was headed by Mr Cho's second son, Min-je.

Mr Cho's third son, Seung-jae, bought three floors of the CCMM building for £17 million, and then sold them back to the church three years later for £22 million, the elders say.

They also claim that Mr Cho's wife, Kim Sung-hae, who is president of the church's Hansei University, has yet to account for £6 million paid by the church to found another church campus, Bethesda University, in California.

Mr Cho is also accused of trying to hush up an extramarital affair with a female Korean singer in France, using a payment of £870,000 from church coffers.

During a recent press conference in Seoul, a supporter of Mr Cho mounted the rostrum and tried to grab one of the elders by the throat.

Mr Cho is "unconcerned with money", one of his aides, Lee Won-gun, was quoted as saying by the Hankyoreh newspaper.

Mr Cho and his mother-in-law founded the Full Gospel Church in 1958, and its first services were held in a US Army tent. It featured in the Revd Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch's BBC television series A History of Christianity.

Mr Cho was rebuked in 2011 for saying that the earthquake and tsunami that killed nearly 16,000 people in Japan was "God's warning" to a country that follows "idol worship, atheism and materialism".

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