June 22nd 2021 | Chen Wangli | Bitterwinter

Last month, members of Manmin Central Church in Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, Jilin province, were detained by local police and interrogated about the organization and money of their church. The same happened to Manmin believers in Benxi, a prefecture-level city in Liaoning province. They were subsequently released, but told that they will be kept under surveillance.

Manmin is not in the Chinese list of the xie jiao, but is increasingly being treated as such.

In fact, the believers were told that being part of Manmin, whose name means “All Nations,” is now forbidden in China, because the church’s founder has been sentenced as a “cult” leader in South Korea, where the group has also been identified as one of the churches where clusters of COVID-19 infections emerged, due to the careless behavior of the devotees.

Both claims appear to be true. Manmin Central Church was founded by Pastor Lee Jae-Rock (born in 1943) in 1982, and was originally affiliated with the Jesus Korea Holiness Church, part of the international Protestant Holiness movement. In 1989, Lee was accused of heresy and expelled from his denomination. He reacted by gathering like-minded pastors and founding the United Holiness Church of Jesus Christ.

Despite persistent accusations of heresy in South Korea, because of his idiosyncratic interpretation of the Bible, distribution of miraculous handkerchiefs and holy water supposed to heal many illnesses, and claims that God had made him sinless, Lee gathered more than 100,000 followers in his country and established some 20 branches of Manmin abroad. In 2006, he led a large revival in New York’s Madison Square Garden.

In 2015, eight female followers accused Lee of sexual abuse. He was found guilty and sentenced to 15 years in jail in 2018, raised to 16 years on appeal in 2019, a verdict confirmed by the Supreme Court in the same year.

In 2020, Manmin made headlines again when several of his members tested positive at COVID-19 after having attended the same church services. This had happened, however, when religious gatherings were not forbidden in South Korea, and no criminal charges were filed.

Despite all these problems, not only Manmin is still very much active in South Korea, with Pastor Lee continuing to send messages to the members from jail, but its Chinese branches continue to thrive.

“Manmin has been in China for twenty years, a believer from Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture told Bitter Winter. We are not part of the [government-controlled] Three Self Church but we are good citizens and have never criticized the Communist Party. For many years, the authorities knew we existed, and we were more or less left alone. We never caused any trouble.”

The believer, who is persuaded Pastor Lee is innocent and has been framed by disgruntled ex-members (although Korean courts of law have reached a different conclusion), and also denied that Lee claims to be God, said that, “We have nothing to do with problems in Korea. In China, we practice Christianity, try to help our neighbors, and do not commit any crime.”

Another believer told Bitter Winter what we also heard from members of other Korea-based Christian movements. “There is a regular cooperation between the CCP and Korean pastors and activists who have decided that they have the authority to declare who is a real Christian and who is heretic or belongs to a ‘cult.’ We know these Korean ‘heresy-hunters’ have visited China and told the CCP which Korean churches are heretic and should be proscribed. The CCP humors them, because they help spreading Chinese propaganda in South Korea.” “Before their intervention, we had very little problems with the authorities,” she said.