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South Korean mega-church leader Cho Yong-gi dies at 85

SEOUL – Reverend Cho Yong-gi, the charismatic founder of one of the world’s largest mega-churches, whose preaching “positive positive thinking” helped fuel the explosive growth of Christianity in a once South Korea ravaged by war, died on Tuesday in a Seoul hospital. He was 85 years old.

Mr. Cho, pastor emeritus of Yoido Full Gospel Church, had been hospitalized for more than a year after suffering a brain hemorrhage, the church said in a statement confirming his death.

The church, which once claimed a congregation of more than 800,000 worshipers, has shrunk since Mr. Cho retired ten years ago amid scandals, accused by church elders of having embezzlement of church funds and other transgressions.

But it is still the largest church in South Korea, with more than 570,000 people attending services at the main building on Yoido Island, on the Han River, which runs through Seoul, as well as at five shrines scattered around this area. capital city. Separately, hundreds of small churches affiliated with Yoido Full Gospel operate in South Korea and around the world.

Mr. Cho’s life coincided with the rapid transformation of South Korea from a war-torn agrarian country to one of the richest industrialized economies in the world. At the same time, Christianity became the largest religion in South Korea, encompassing 28% of the population and supplanting Buddhism, Confucianism and Shamanism.

The Full Gospel of Yoido and a handful of other churches welcomed millions of people who had migrated from rural South Korea to the cities, especially Seoul, in search of jobs and a sense of belonging. spiritual.

“Reverend Cho was a symbol of the mega-church boom in South Korea,” said Hwang Gui-hag, author of several books on Christianity in South Korea and editor of the Seoul-based Law Times, specializing in the church. new. “He also helped to globalize the South Korean church. South Korea’s mega-churches have long been one of the world’s greatest sources of missionaries.

But like that of other mega-church founders in South Korea, Mr. Cho’s legacy has been marred by corruption scandals and feuds within his family and his organization. Formerly loyal church elders accused him and other members of his family of embezzling church funds and demanding reforms. In 2017, he was found guilty in a South Korean court of breach of trust and embezzlement, despite receiving a suspended sentence and avoiding jail.

Cho Yong-gi was born in 1936 in Ulju, in the southeast of South Korea, when the Korean peninsula was still a colony of Japan. While a student at a vocational high school in Busan, a southern port city populated by refugees from the Korean War, he contracted tuberculosis. He later called his recovery miraculous, attributing it to a religious revival. He was also influenced by Kenneth Tice, a Pentecostal Assemblies of God missionary from the United States.

Mr. Cho and Choi Ja-shil, a Pentecostal pastor who would become his mother-in-law, founded a church in a Seoul slum in 1958, under a tent that had been thrown up by the US military. Only five worshipers showed up on the first day, including three from Ms. Choi’s family. Another was an old woman who had entered the tent to protect herself from the rain.

But Mr. Cho and Ms. Choi quickly attracted more and more worshipers as rumors spread that they could cure the sick at a time when millions of people lived without access to medical services. Mr. Cho preached “hope” and “positive thinking,” convincing impoverished devotees that religious faith would bring three rewards: wealth, health and spiritual comfort.

In 1973, to accommodate his growing congregation, Mr. Cho opened the church building on Yoido, which was then an undeveloped island. (The island is now home to the country’s National Assembly and major financial institutions.) By 1993, the church had 700,000 faithful and was recognized by Guinness World Records as the largest congregation in the world. The church continued to grow as Mr. Cho divided Seoul into several proselytizing sectors, assigning deputies to each.

Mr Hwang said that while studying in Canada in the 1990s, he was surprised to learn that more Canadians had heard of Mr Cho than the President of South Korea.

Mr. Cho has started charity programs for the needy, including raising funds for children with heart disease. His $ 17 million plan to build a hospital for heart disease patients in North Korea’s capital Pyongyang is on hold as relations between the two Koreas remain strained over the North’s nuclear weapons program. .

Mr. Cho is survived by three sons. His wife, Kim Sung-hae, died in February. She had formerly headed Hansei University, affiliated with the Yoido Church.

By the time Mr. Cho retired at age 75, his religious empire was engulfed in scandals. Family members have also been criticized for holding key positions in the church and in organizations affiliated with the church, including Kukmin Ilbo, a daily.

“There is an end to our life,” Mr. Cho said frailly in his last sermon in July 2020, shortly before his hospitalization. “When our life ends in this world, everyone must stand before God for judgment. So the most important thing you can do in this world is believe in Jesus Christ and earn your salvation. “

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