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Published : 2012-09-07 20:31
Updated : 2012-09-07 20:31

A volunteer organization for foreigners embroiled in controversy over its connections with a controversial church has denied that it is a recruiting tool for the religious institution.

Mannam Volunteer Association, an organization that offers language and cooking classes to foreigners as well as recruits them for charitable activities, released a statement on Sunday addressing its connection to Shinchonji, a church founded in 1984, and World Peace Initiative, a group which, according to its website, organizes creative projects for peace.

MVA international division coordinator Lisa Baik said in the statement that the three organizations were “entirely separate legal entities, with different constitutions, memberships and objectives,” but that many members of the three groups were working together for the common goal of peace. The leader and founder of Shinchonji, Lee Man-hee, is also MVA’s honorary chairman.

Baik denied any intention to recruit members to Shinchonji, insisting that MVA was entirely secular, and apologized to Mannam members for not disclosing the relationship between the groups earlier.

“Initially, our failure to disclose the full details of our relationship with the Shinchonji church was to protect our quickly growing volunteer group from the baseless accusations leveled against Mannam because of the connection with this particular church,” said Baik. “This was also done to protect certain members who are a part of the Shinchonji Church who did not want to expose their affiliation due to the intolerant climate of the society.”

Baik also acknowledged that MVA would be sharing the venue for its upcoming “World Peace Festival” on Sept. 16 with the quadrennial Shinchonji Olympiad, following an invitation from Lee. The World Peace Festival has been described by MVA as a sports and culture event to promote world peace.

According to the volunteer organization, more than 100,000 people are expected to attend, and invitations have been extended to foreign presidents, ambassadors and VIPs. The volunteer association has been encouraging foreigners in Korea to take part in the event, offering free transportation and food. One Mannam organizer in Daegu told The Korea Herald that “more than 1,000” foreigners in that city alone had signed up for the event. MVA has yet to name the venue and several online advertisements for the games have been removed in recent days.

“We are thinking about three different places because it is getting bigger, there are more people who want to come. (They will) fix the location two weeks before the event. That’s what I heard from the headquarters,” said one organizer in Daegu.

Shinchonji was founded in 1984 and claims more than 100,000 members. Lee claims to have been visited by Jesus and to have seen and heard the events of the book of Revelations. The church has been accused by Christian Broadcasting Station of brainwashing members and was the subject of an edition of MBC’s PD Notebook in 2007 that claimed the church to be fraudulent. An Internet cafe on Naver features accounts of people who claim to have been harmed by the church.

Lee spoke at a recent reception marking the one-year anniversary of the founding of Mannam International, a branch of the organization for foreigners in Korea. The reception, which had invited some 40 foreign ambassadors to Korea, was attended by several ambassadors as well as numerous diplomatic staff from other embassies.

MVA’s statement followed a report by Christian Broadcasting Station on Aug. 22 that claimed the volunteer organization to be a front for Shinchonji. Zackary Downey, a Canadian blogger living in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, subsequently investigated MVA’s relationship with the church on his blog Scroozle’s Sanctuary. Among other associations, Downey noted that Joseph Suhng, a Sinchonji member who is Lee’s spokesman, was also a director at Serving Group, a Los Angeles-based volunteer association that uses the Mannam name and distinctive “V” hand gesture on its website.

MVA declined to respond to repeated requests for comment about its connections to Shinchonji in time for publication. Several Mannam volunteers, however, said they had never encountered anything to suggest the organization promoted Shinchonji through its activities.

“Personally, I don’t care about that kind of religious thing and also I haven’t experienced any religious things (at Mannam),” said one volunteer and spokesman for the organization.

By John Power  (john.power@heraldcorp.com)

Intern reporter Sang Youn-joo contributed to this report.

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