Fiji’s opposition parties have called for an immediate inquiry into a South Korean religious sect accused of abuse and ritual beatings after a report from investigative journalists alleged it had received millions in Fijian government-backed loans.
- A report by an investigative group found the church and its businesses received millions of dollars from the Fiji Development Bank
- It examined the sect’s government ties and why an investigation into abuse allegations in Fiji has stalled
- The church’s founder was jailed in Korea in 2018 for the detaining and abusing followers in Fiji
The Grace Road Church — which is often described as a “doomsday cult” — has been in the spotlight since its founder was sentenced in 2018 to six years in prison in South Korea for child abuse, false imprisonment and assaulting church followers in Fiji.
A police investigation into alleged breaches of Fijian law by the church remains open, but this hasn’t stopped the sect’s business empire from flourishing across the Pacific nation.
The sect brought around 400 of its followers to Fiji in 2014, claiming the island nation was chosen by God as a safe haven from an impending global famine and drought.
It now runs the country’s largest chain of restaurants, controls vast areas of farmland, and owns several supermarkets, mini-marts, and Mobil petrol stations.
And it has been able to build up its enterprises with help from the government, according to a new investigative report into the church.
The report by investigative journalists in the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and the Korea Center for Investigative Journalism (KCIJ-Newstapa) alleges the church had received more than $FJ8.5 million ($5.6 million) in loans from the state- backed Fiji Development Bank (FDB).
The FDB reports to Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khayum, who dismissed the report and questioned the credibility of the OCCRP.
He told reporters outside parliament this week they should focus their attention on the “many faith-based organizations in Fiji where pastors have actually raped people”.
“Have they done a report on that?” he said.
‘A very warm welcome’
The OCCRP’s Pacific editor Aubrey Belford told the ABC’s Pacific Beat program the consortium’s six-month investigation was based on publicly available information, including property and court documents, as well as interviews with former sect members.
“We looked at the whole pattern since Grace Road started out in Fiji nearly a decade ago, and it’s received a very warm welcome from the Fijian government,” Belford said.
“What we found is that they’ve grown into one of the most significant business empires in Fiji right now.”
Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama has publicly praised the church and its construction firm has won lucrative government contracts.
Critics have questioned the decision to award the church government contracts and loans given its controversial history.
The leader of the opposition People’s Alliance, Sitiveni Rabuka, slammed the government’s complacency to allow the church to continue with business as usual.
“It is a disgrace that this foreign sect whose founder is serving jail time in Korea for abusing its adherents has been given the red carpet treatment by the FijiFirst government,” he said.
Belford said the investigation did not reveal evidence of corruption on the part of the Fiji government.
“But we did find a very serious pattern of giving Grace Road very, very friendly treatment,” he said.
The opposition said it was time the church was put under the microscope and called for an immediate inquiry into the sect.
The leader of the National Federation Party, Biman Prasad, said he was shocked and concerned — but not surprised — by the findings.
“We need to get to the bottom of this,” Mr Prasad told the ABC.
“We believe that a thorough investigation or an inquiry into some of these allegations needs to be undertaken immediately so we can put these issues to rest.”
He said he was also worried about the impact the findings could have on foreign investment.
Mr Rabuka accused the government of “leaving Fijians behind for the sake of assisting their own rich foreign friends”.
He echoed calls for an inquiry, saying his party would launch a full investigation into Grace Road’s operations if elected.
Church brings Fiji millions in investments
By examining company documents, the report also found that 339 members were listed as shareholders of the church’s Fijian companies.
“We were able to calculate they brought at least $FJ20 million ($13 million) into the country as investment,” Belford said.
A former sect member, Yoon-jae Lee, told KCIJ-Newstapa reporters he did not have control over how his money was spent or know which companies he was a shareholders of.
He also claimed that being listed as having part ownership of one of the church’s nine companies was “just a tool to get working visas”.
Abuse allegations in limbo
Belford added there were unanswered questions around a police investigation into alleged abuse by some other sect leaders.
The investigation is still open in Fiji, but no charges have been filed.
In August 2018, when the church’s founder Shin Ok-ju was convicted of detaining hundreds of followers in Fiji and subjecting them to “collective beatings”, “physical torture” and “severe fear”, South Korea sent police to raid the sect’s headquarters.
The group of 17 police was flown to Fiji where they arrested six church members, but “suddenly, they were let go,” Belford said.
“The decision was made in Fiji that these people would not be sent back to Korea, but instead Fiji would do their own investigation in collaboration with the Koreans,” he said.
“Nothing has really happened since then. No-one’s been arrested. The official Fiji line is they’re still investigating and there’s no evidence of abuse.”
Fiji’s independent director of public prosecutions told the OCCRP that police did not find enough evidence to justify prosecution.
Among those initially arrested was Shin’s son, Daniel Kim, who continues to run the church and build its businesses in Fiji while his mother serves out her prison sentence.
Mr Kim remains subject to a Korean arrest warrant, according to the OCCRP report.
He has publicly denied allegations, including claims that the church was holding members’ passports and detaining them in Fiji.
OCCRP and KCIJ-Newstapa reporters spoke to witnesses who said they worked in poor conditions, were not paid, had limited freedoms and endured ritual beatings that mirrored accounts given at Shin’s trial.
This included a form of punishment called the “threshing floor” where someone is publicly beaten to rid them of evil spirits, Belford said.
A 2018 Al Jazeera documentary also featured the testimony of several former church members detailing physical abuse and overwork, as well as showing footage of Reverand Shin hitting and abusing her followers.
Belford said they found that Fijian police officers had traveled to Korea and spoke to witnesses who told them about abuses carried out on Fiji soil by people who remained in the country.
“Yet, Fiji has not seen fit to level any charges,” he said.
“Exactly what is going on? This is now a question that needs to be answered.”
Fiji Police, the government and the FDB did not respond to requests for comment from the ABC or the OCCRP for their report.