A South Korean church which believes global famine is imminent has set up base in Fiji, where it’s gained considerable influence but faced growing allegations of abuse. One woman who fled what she believes is a cult told the BBC’s Yvette Tan she lost her family in the process – but has no regrets.
Seoyeon Lee had one chance to escape and she took it, running down the road in Fiji in her pyjamas and flip-flops.
“I was crying and I looked hysterical,” she told the BBC.
The then 21-year-old was being pursued by members of Grace Road – including her own mother – who she says had tricked her into going to the Pacific island nation.
“I would have killed myself if they’d made me stay,” she says.
‘I think it’s a cult’
A year earlier, in 2013, Seoyeon had come home to South Korea from the US, where she was studying, for the summer. Her mum was suffering from uterine cancer but had refused treatment.
She told Seoyeon she would only seek treatment if she went with her to Grace Road Church.
“It was very bizarre,” said Seoyeon. “There were people screaming, crying, speaking in tongues and the sermon was about how the end times were coming.
“I told my mum, I think it’s a cult but she didn’t believe me.”
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Fiji looks like paradise on earth to many, but not for Seoyeon
Once back at university, she found her mother had still not sought treatment and would only do so on one condition – that Seoyeon quit school and went back to South Korea.
Seoyeon, whose father had died of cancer, took leave and went home.
After her mother went through surgery, she told Seoyeon that she wanted to move to Fiji to recover – and insisted that she go along with her. Eventually, Seoyeon agreed to go for two weeks to help her adjust.
“At that point, I didn’t know it was an elaborate ruse,” she said.
“But when I got to Fiji and saw we were driving to a commune… I was like, how could I have been so stupid?”
The ‘great famine’
South Korea has a significant Christian population, and in recent decades many small, fringe churches have sprung up, some of them developing cult-like characteristics.
Grace Road, which insists it is not a cult, started out small in 2002, but now numbers about 1,000 followers, according to Prof Tark Ji-il of Busan Presbyterian University, who has closely studied Korean cults.