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[Newsmaker] Cult linked to ferry firm resists law

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Published : 2014-05-14 21:13
Updated : 2014-05-14 21:27

The Salvation Sect, a religious group believed to be led by the sunken Sewol’s de facto owner Yoo Byung-eon, came to the center of controversy on Wednesday as its members blocked entry to the facility where he is thought to be residing.

Hundreds of members gathered at Geumsoowon, the headquarters of the sect in Anseong, Gyeonggi Province, blocking outsiders from entering the site and claiming that the prosecution is suppressing their religious freedom.

The move, however, was seen as an attempt to protect Yoo and his children, who are being investigated by the prosecution over a string of alleged wrongdoings. They are suspected of embezzlement, tax evasion and other crimes. Yoo is thought to have been directly involved in running Sewol’s operator Chonghaejin Marine Co. 
Members of the Salvation Sect, believed to be led by Yoo Byung-eon, the owner of the sunken ferry Sewol, hold a rally in front of the Incheon District Prosecutors’ Office on Wednesday. (Yonhap)

The Incheon District Prosecutors’ Office issued Yoo with a summons to appear on Friday for questioning. All of Yoo’s children and a number of key suspects have ignored the summons.

The prosecution is apparently struggling to determine their whereabouts, but they believe that Yoo and some of his children are hiding in the facility.

Reports say the prosecution could enter the facility with a court warrant to take them into custody. But investigators seem to be moving cautiously to avoid possible physical conflict with the sect members.

The sect members have been fiercely arguing that the prosecution’s attempt to investigate the sect is religious suppression.

Members put up a banner reading “freedom of religion” at the main gate of the facility, as media flocked to the area to see if the prosecution would attempt to enter the land to detain Yoo and his children.

Yoo is believed to be leading the sect and allegedly used church members’ offerings for business and investments. He is also suspected have taken out loans using his church’s real estate as collateral.

The sect has some 100 churches in Korea and about 200,000 members worldwide. Unlike other Christian organizations, the group is alleged to focus little on repentance ― a reason why it has been termed a heretical group.

Speculation is rampant that loyal members of the sect have been engaged in a large pyramid sales scheme, including Dapanda, a multilayered marketing firm employing loyalists from the sect. With nearly 60 branches nationwide, Dapanda sells various items ranging from cosmetics to health food and kitchen products. The firm is thought to have thrived and secured stable marketing routes with backing from the sect’s devout members.

Amid escalating criticism against the owner families and their close link to the sect, a growing number of boycotts have been launched online. A list of companies believed to be connected to the religious group and the Yoo family has gone viral on portal sites, blogs and Twitter, with the campaign urging people not to buy their products.

The list not only includes companies currently being investigated by the prosecution, but also hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and amusement parks found to be connected to the sect or operated by its members.

By Cho Chung-un (christory@heraldcorp.com)