Last week, a court in South Korea sentenced the leader of a religious cult to six years in prison for the barbaric treatment of 400 followers who relocated to Fiji. But so far, the case has had no effect on the cult’s operations in Fiji.
In 2014, Shin Ok-Ju, the founder of the Grace Road Church, declared Fiji had been chosen by God as a refuge from the approaching apocalypse. Her followers turned over their life savings and then, on arrival in Fiji, gave up their possessions and their passports.
According to the South Korean court, followers were subjected to “ritual beatings” and “barbaric rituals.” A court statement said Shin asserted “absolute authority,” and a documentary that aired in South Korea last year included a scene that showed her slapping a follower.
Mainstream churches in South Korea and Fiji have both branded the Grace Road Church as a cult, but, using its followers as forced labor, its businesses thrive. Grace Road operates ice cream parlors, restaurants, retail stores, salons and a rice plantation that received an award in 2017 from Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama. Grace Road’s construction company holds lucrative government contracts to renovate the Presidential residence and the office of the Prime Minister.
A brief statement issued last week said that the government took note of Shin’s sentencing, that the police in Fiji had co-operated with authorities in South Korea and that joint investigations into Grace Road’s activities in Fiji continue.
Seo Yeong Lee, a young woman who escaped from the church compound, told Australia’s ABC, “I hope the Fijian government opens their eyes to what she has done, and what kind of organization this really is.”