As Zimbabweans, how do we feel about our most senior judge flying to South Korea, wasting days of office time at a conference with no tangible or meaningful outcome, legitimising a religious cult and then allowing state media to praise his bold contributions to the cause of peace?
Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku recently came back from Seoul, South Korea, where he represented Zimbabwe at the Proclamation of the Declaration of Peace and the Cessation of War, organised by a group calling itself Heavenly Culture, World Peace and Restoration of Light (HWPL), headed by one Man Hee Lee.
By Helen Morris
A Herald article from March 15 2016 claims “the quest for global peace and harmony escalated with the historic launch of the proclamation” and praises Chidyausiku’s participation in the event.
The declaration described in the article is strangely vague. The speech by Man Hee Lee, which the Herald reports as groundbreaking peace-building policy, is full of statements that even a 12-year-old might make after first seeing a bomb blast reported on the evening news — “wars are untenable”, “the work of peace is a task someone must take on”, “the declaration seeks to dispose the world of all armed conflicts”. Although the sentiment is noble, the declaration ignores decades of peace-building work by policy-makers around the world, and ludicrously over-simplifies local and global politics.
The website for HWPL is as vague as the speech quoted in the Herald. HWPL’s “vision for sustainable peace” states that if all the heads of state “sign an international agreement” and if all the youth “agree not to fight one another … world peace will be restored”. Again, these platitudes are so obvious that they are barely worth stating.
Moreover, humanity has not been at peace since Cain killed Abel, so there is nothing to restore. The website boasts about peace marches and conferences at which peace is declared, but provides very little concrete evidence of substantial work towards developing peace in any region of the world. Man Hee Lee has “traversed the globe 24 times, talking about peace”, but there is no evidence of concrete work towards peace. There are plenty of photographs of him talking or posing, but he has never mediated a conflict or brokered a ceasefire anywhere.
More research about Man Hee Lee reveals that the elderly white-suited man is best known in South Korea, not as a herald of peace, but as the leader of a church called Shincheonji. As the leader of Shincheonji, Man Hee Lee teaches that after Jesus ascended to Heaven, God promised to anoint another pastor, who would prepare Christians for the Second Coming. Man Hee Lee claims to be that pastor and attracts people to his sect by convincing them that “when the Second Coming arrives it will not be enough to know only God and Jesus, believers must also know the pastor promised in the New Testament” (that is Man Hee Lee). His teaching demonises “the enemy”, which is anyone who refuses to recognise that Man Hee Lee is the only true route to salvation, forcing many members to cut off contact with any family and friends who are not followers of Man Hee Lee.
As God’s anointed pastor, Man Hee Lee expects absolute obedience from his followers. He instructs them to limit their sleep, in order to devote more time to prayer and to studying his doctrine. The widespread sleep deprivation makes the congregation easier to frighten and emotionally manipulate. They study his teachings and his version of the Bible for four or five days a week in groups, managed by minders, who report disobedience to church elders.
Every person in Shincheonji is expected to attend three or four-hour services on Wednesdays and Sundays. Many Shincheonji branches use a digital fingerprint recognition register to ensure that every person is present. Followers are strongly urged to give up their jobs or studies in order to devote their lives entirely to the church. They are also encouraged to give up all of their savings to their leaders, leaving them completely reliant on the church community.
One of the key requirements for becoming a core member and guaranteed salvation in the Second Coming, is recruiting new members for Shincheonji. The sect became very unpopular in South Korea because members would infiltrate other churches and attract the members away from their congregations.
Many churches in South Korea have signs explicitly forbidding Shincheonji members. Shincheonji events in South Korea have to be protected by special internal church security forces, because they invariably attract protests from people who have lost family members to the cult. The government of South Korea has banned Shincheonji from advertising in local media.
The sect’s deep unpopularity in South Korea meant that Man Hee Lee had to develop a new strategy for generating positive publicity for Shincheonji. He founded a “volunteer” organisation called Mannam to target foreigners. The organisation explicitly claimed not to be religious, but the key leadership was identical to Shincheonji’s. Mannam hosted peace walks and parties for foreigners in South Korea to demonstrate that the church had widespread support.
In 2012, Mannam advertised (in English) a World Peace Ceremony at the Seoul Olympic Stadium, to which it invited thousands of foreigners, with no mention of Shincheonji. In Korean, however, it advertised the Shincheonji 6th Olympiad, taking place at the Seoul Olympic Stadium, at the same day and time. By publicising the large foreign audience at the event, Shincheonji was able to argue that it is a globally relevant organisation.
However, many of the people conned into attending the 2012 Mannam event were angered and frightened when they realised the close links between Mannam and Shincheonji. Mannam was disbanded, but in 2014 a new organisation was founded under the name HWPL with Man Hee Lee as chairman. In 2014, they hosted the World Alliance of Religions for Peace Summit, inviting government and civil society leaders from around the world.
Although neither Shincheonji nor Mannam were mentioned in English at the summit, attendees noted that all of the South Korean participants made the Shincheonji hand signal (thumb and index finger extended) when cameras were pointed at them. Based on the invitations that they had received, many of the participants believed that they were going to Seoul to participate in discussions and workshops or to chair panels about issues relevant to peace building. However, there were no discussions — the programme was dominated by peace marches and mass rallies with long speeches by Man Hee Lee.
In the speeches, Man Hee Lee’s solution for world peace was for all people to unite and accept one religion — his own. The participants were divided into small groups, each of which was closely monitored by a pair of minders, who forced the participants to attend every event and demanded that they look happy for the cameras.
This month, Man Hee Lee held yet another mass event, again using vague platitudes about world peace to bring international figures to South Korea to legitimise his cult. One of the key demands in the “Peace Law” that the leaders signed is that “states should foster religious freedom by allowing members of religious communities to practise their religion, whether in public or in private”. While freedom of religion is certainly a critical aspect of a free nation, this clause seems primarily aimed at the South Korean government, which Man Hee Lee feels persecuted by because of the limitations on Shincheonji in South Korea.
Chidyausiku was not the only national figure duped into providing support for Man Hee Lee’s cult. HWPL boasts that Ali Abu Diak, the Palestinian Minister of Justice, and Lex Mpati, the president of the Supreme Court of Appeal in South Africa, both gave speeches at the event last week.
At the 2014 event, a video of South African cleric Desmond Tutu praising HWPL’s peace initiative was screened.
However, when Tutu realised that his video was being used to endorse Man Hee Lee’s cult, he retracted his statement and ordered HWPL to remove the video from their website. Chidyausiku, on the other hand, was warmly praised in a national newspaper for his participation. Unlike Tutu, Chidyausiku either somehow failed to realise the nature of the event he had participated in or lacked the integrity to admit that he had been lured to South Korea under false pretenses.
As the Chief Justice, Chidyausiku is responsible for some of the most important decisions in Zimbabwe. As Zimbabweans, how do we feel about our most senior judge flying to South Korea, wasting days of office time at a conference with no tangible or meaningful outcome, legitimising a religious cult and then allowing state media to praise his bold contributions to the cause of peace?
Morris is working as a researcher in Harare. — firstname.lastname@example.org