For God and country

An influential pastor comes under scrutiny for his business dealings

Big in Korea

KOREA has long been a hotbed of religiosity. Before a certain Kim Il Sung began having other ideas, Pyongyang (now the capital of North Korea) used to be known as “The Jerusalem of the East”. And in today’s Seoul, practitioners of traditional shamanism, Buddhism, Christianity and even cults such as the Unification Church (better known in the West as the Moonies), all have plenty of followers.

Many of them also have lots of money (not least because religious institutions are tax-exempt). The Protestant church, in particular, seems to have produced a tribe of flashy, mansion-dwelling pastors. This is partly a result of the character of Korean Protestantism: a common theme, for instance, at the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul is that a poor Christian is not a good Christian. However, it is also a result of the incentives created by the sheer size of some churches. Yoido itself ranks as the largest Christian congregation in the world, with over 1m members. Another, Somang Church, has hundreds of thousands of faithful, including South Korea’s president, Lee Myung-bak.

With all these people throwing their spare won into the collection plate, mega-churches have become big businesses. Yoido Full Gospel Church’s founder Cho Yong-gi, who has run the congregation since 1958, has family interests ranging from private universities to newspapers. Members of his church were once asked to pray for higher sales for one of his titles.

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