Opinion: Mayor “All In” With Alleged Cult Project

Mayor Farrah Khan walking into a building
From Mayor Farrah Khan’s Facebook Page

Mayor Farrah N. Khan recently declared her enthusiastic support for the work of the convicted criminal who leads an alleged cult based in South Korea. In posts on her official City  Facebook and  Twitter accounts, Khan stated on May 27, 2023:

“I’m all in to support Chairman Man Hee Lee and Heavenly Culture World Peace Restoration of Light with their work of peace through the 10 Articles and 38 Clauses of the Declaration of Peace and Cessation of War. Today, I joined elected officials, religious leaders, and community leaders in celebrating the 10th Anniversary Ceremony of the DPCW and Peace Walk.”

“Feeling inspired, especially after this beautiful welcome.”

Khan’s posts included a video of her entering a building tagged as California State University, Fullerton, to the cheers of onlookers. The posts raise several questions: Who is Man Hee Lee? What is Heavenly Culture, World Peace, and Restoration of Light? And what is the Declaration of Peace and Cessation of War?

Who is Man Hee Lee?

Lee Man-hee is the 91-year-old founder of Shincheonji Church of Jesus, the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony (SCJ). He is described by the  New York Times as “a secretive religious sect that was at the center of a coronavirus outbreak in South Korea.”

The Times reported that on January 13, 2021, Lee received a suspended three-year prison sentence for embezzling $5.1 million from church funds to build a luxurious “peace palace,” as well as other offenses.

At the same time, Lee was charged with conspiring to impede health authorities’ efforts to fight COVID-19. “Prosecutors arrested Mr. Lee in August [2020] on charges that he and other church officials had obstructed the government’s efforts to fight the epidemic by not fully disclosing the number of worshipers and their gathering places.” He was later acquitted of these charges. 

Lee had controversies before this as well, with a New York Times article reporting: “Parents of recruits accuse him of ‘brainwashed slavery.’ Former members describe him as another in a long line of spiritual snake oil salesmen in South Korea, a fertile ground for untraditional religious sects.” It quoted a former follower as saying: “Lee Man-hee is a psychopath who has lied and lied until he believed his lie that he was the true messiah.”

Public radio program, The World aired an in-depth report on Lee and his church in 2017. It explained that Shincheonji was founded in 1984, and its name translates from Korean as “new heaven and earth,” a reference from the Book of Revelation. Most Korean Christians are strongly opposed to Shincheonji and view it as a cult.

In February 2020, Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) announced an ongoing investigation into a local chapter of Shincheonji. According to its  press release:

The SCJ … has attracted accusations of being a cult in several countries due to its unorthodox teachings. Based on testimonies of former members, Lee has claimed to be the second coming of Christ, who would bring 144,000 people to Heaven with him on the Day of Judgement. He has also claimed to be the only person who can interpret the Bible, and SCJ allegedly regards all other churches and pastors as belonging to Satan. SCJ teaches that it is acceptable to use deceit and lies if it serves God’s purposes. It has been accused of infiltrating and disrupting established Korean churches by using deception and secrecy to trick people into becoming involved with them.”


What is Heavenly Culture, World Peace, and Restoration of Light?

According to Peter Daley, a self-described cult watcher based in Seoul, Heavenly Culture, World Peace, Restoration of Light (HWPL) is a front group for Shincheonji. Daley told the  Australian Broadcasting Corporation that one purpose of such a front is to get outsiders to their events, as “they often invite VIPs and former heads of state of developing countries.”

The Korea Times put it more bluntly: “The church is notorious for its use of deception techniques, approaching people through various front groups such as Mannam Volunteer Association and Heavenly Culture, World Peace, Restoration of Light (HWPL).”   

According to the Singapore MHA press release:

The SCJ members tried to register a company in Singapore, under the name of ‘Heavenly Culture, World Peace & Restoration of Light’ (HWPL) in February 2019. MHA raised security objections to the registration of HWPL, as MHA believed that HWPL was going to be used as a front for SCJ. Subsequent investigations found that SCJ had previously incorporated another front company, ‘Spasie Pte Ltd.’ Spasie describes itself as offering consultancy services, as well as the development of software. Recently, SCJ also set up a sole proprietorship called ‘Kings Av,’ described as providing corporate training services, motivational courses and personal development workshops, but that entity is also a front, to lease a property for use as a ‘temple.’”

Lee granted The World an interview, but when he was asked about the founding of Shinchonji, he steered the discussion in another direction: “There are many people who misunderstand me and also try to make false understanding about Shinchonji. For this interview, I would rather talk about the peace movement.”

The report continues:

“On his business card, the list of Lee’s titles includes the name of an organization called, ‘Heavenly Culture, World Peace, Restoration of Light,’ and another one called ‘MANNAM Volunteer Association.’ Critics say that these are front groups for the church of Shinchonji. But Lee and his followers see something else.

“Lee explains to me that God works for peace, his son Jesus worked for peace, and now, Lee himself is working as an international peace activist. By doing so, Lee says he is carrying out the will of God that was alluded to in the Bible.

“Lee is keen to mention that he has composed a formal declaration for the end of all global war. The text of the declaration is carved into a large stone tablet in the back yard of the mansion. He tells me that the declaration has received broad acceptance around the world.”

Suh Min-jun, a former Shincheonji member working at the Shincheonji Cult Counciling Center, told the South China Morning Post:

“Shincheonji created an NGO called the Heavenly Culture, World Peace, Restoration of Light [HWPL] in 2013 as a propaganda engine that invited former presidents, ambassadors, religious leaders and NGOs from across the globe to its Warp summit in 2014 that had the goal of world peace.”

“The summit was a method to create a humanitarian image for the group and to collect money from its members.”

In September 2014, Lee chaired the World Alliance of Religions Peace Summit (WARP). As participants became aware of the ties to Shincheoni, some bailed out. “We didn’t know the chairman of the peace summit is accused of being a cult leader who claims to be immortal,” a Muslim participant told the  Korea Observer.

Martijn Bergsma received an invitation to attend WARP in his capacity as president of a Dutch youth organization, with HWPL paying 80% of the airfare. Bergsma accepted the invitation, despite some misgivings that the official name of the group “ sounded a bit sketchy to me, looking at the religious connotation.” Here is an excerpt from his detailed account of his experience:

“The main speech was … from Mr. Man Hee Lee, where I found out the real intentions behind the gathering. Previously Man Hee Lee spoke about ‘uniting all youngsters to achieve peace,’ but now it became clear how exactly: by uniting under his religion.

“He explained that he was sent as a messenger from heaven to deliver this message and that uniting under the one true God was the only way to solve conflicts. Diversity was the problem. At that moment I was sure that this ‘peace summit’ would not have a meaningful contribution. Back in the hotel I started googling to see if I could find more about Man Hee Lee and the movement. Some blogs … explained that HWPL was actually a disguised body of the ‘Sincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony,’ which Man Hee Lee founded in 1984. It is best described as a Christian cult, with dubious teachings on the bible. The organization infiltrates schools and other churches, to recruit new members and to indoctrinate them. For foreigners they organize free Korean lessons and leisure events. While these foreigners don’t know exactly who organizes these free activities, on photo and video material it seems that they support the Church. For similar reasons we were photographed so much in the stadium: we are excellent propaganda material for the South Korean people, showing them that Man Hee Lee has supporters from all over the world.

“The morning program consisted of a ceremony to sign a document, calling for the cessation of all wars. Effectively, smartly formulated, the document meant a submission of allegiance to the Sincheonji Church. There was quite some pressure to sign from the Protocol Officers, but I refused, explaining that I would have to discuss it with my organization first. …

“Outside, across the street, there were around 20 protesters, having big flags, warning people about the destructive aspects of the cult. Some of them were screaming at the top of their lungs towards the building, hoping that somebody would get their message. I spoke to a woman who was involved and she explained that her daughter was brainwashed by the organization and that she had not seen her for some years now. We left as quickly as possible, feeling sad about the whole adventure.”


What is the Declaration of Peace and Cessation of War?

The  Declaration of Peace and Cessation of War (DPCW) is couched in the language and form of an international treaty but is more like a petition. It has no force of law and has no state signatories. It’s largely a restatement of existing principles of international law embodied in instruments such as the  United Nations Charter, the  Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and various treaties.  For example, Article 6, Section 1 provides:

“States should recognize the obligation to settle international disputes through peaceful means including reference to the International Court of Justice, other judicial bodies, regional judicial arrangements, or through arbitration, mediation, conciliation, or other forms of alternative dispute resolution and in such a manner that international peace and security are not endangered. States should carry out any judgment or decision reached by a judicial body in good faith.”

This key provision seems largely redundant in light of Article 33 of the U.N. Charter, which provides: 

    1.     The parties to any dispute, the continuance of which is likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security, shall, first of all, seek a solution by negotiation, inquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means of their own choice.
    2.     The Security Council shall, when it deems necessary, call upon the parties to settle their dispute by such means.

The language of the DPCW is substantially weaker than the Charter language in one important respect: The DPCW recites what states “should” do, while the Charter requires what they “shall do.” In law “shall” is understood to place an affirmative obligation on a party, whereas “should” is advisory and the party has the option to reject the advice. The DPCW repeatedly uses “should” rather than “shall,” and thus wouldn’t create binding obligations on signatory states–if there were any. Moreover, the DPCW lacks any enforcement mechanism.

One aspect of the DPCW is its repeated references to religion. Its Preamble asserts “the universal commitment of the world’s religions to the promotion of peaceful coexistence, tolerance, and mutual respect, and the common spirit that permeates all religious scriptures and holy texts.” This is a highly debatable proposition, and arguably an effort to cloak groups like Shincheonji with the mantle of respectability accorded more conventional religious organizations. Article 8 addresses freedom of religion, while Article 9 is titled “Religion, Ethnic Identity, and Peace.” Interestingly, Article 9, Section 3 seems to contradict the language of the Preamble in calling for the suppression of “violent religious extremism.”

It’s open to debate whether the DPCW is a serious mechanism for the elimination of war or merely a tool to garner publicity, respectability, and converts for Lee and the organizations he heads.

Lee’s History in Orange County.

Lee Man-hee is no stranger to Orange County. The first reference cited in the Wikipedia article on Lee is an Orange County Register  article from July 19, 2012, titled “Crystal Cathedral members angered by religious leader’s event.” The Register reported that: “Man Hee Lee, who says Jesus appeared before him as a ‘bright heavenly figure,’ will testify at his first California appearance that the Book of Revelation already has been fulfilled.” The article went on to say: ‘False prophet’ and ‘cult’ are two of the descriptions given to Lee and his ministry, the Tabernacle of the Testimony, by Crystal Cathedral members on a Cathedral watchdog website …. A spokesman for Lee denies the characterization.”

Vern Nelson of Orange Juice Blog also wrote a tongue-in-cheek  article about Lee’s Crystal Cathedral appearance after receiving a call from a publicist:

“She explained that Man Hee teaches that the world has already ended– long ago – and that we are now all in the afterlife.  She said this would make a lot more sense once I hear Man Hee explain it in person.  Then she begged me, whatever I write, to ‘Please treat Man Hee with respect.’

“’I’m sorry, young lady, you called the wrong blog. We don’t do the respect thing here.’

“’Well, then, please don’t write anything about him at all.’

Khan’s Previous Controversial Associations

This is not Khan’s first association with controversial persons. Last year, she received widespread criticism over her appearance in a video with an Armenian genocide denier she appointed to an unofficial advisory committee. Khan issued a series of responses to the criticism, eventually disassociating herself from that individual and donating to charity a campaign contribution she had received from him.

In the wake of that controversy came news that Melahat Rafiei, Khan’s longtime political consultant, had been arrested by the FBI as part of a larger investigation of corruption in local government. Khan discontinued Rafiei’s formal role in her campaign, and in January 2023, Rafiei agreed to plead guilty to attempted wire fraud. Shortly thereafter, the City Council voted 3-2 against a proposal for a City investigation of Rafiei’s activities.