Fiji is the only place on earth that will escape the apocalypse.
At least that’s what South Korea’s Grace Road Church and its founder, Shin Ok-ju, preached to followers, calling the Pacific island nation the “center of the world as promised in the Bible.”
The founding story of Grace Road says a missionary was sent around the world to find the land that would survive the famine. That place, it turns out, happened to be Fiji.
Professor Tark Ji-il from Busan University, who studies Korean cults, explained that “Fiji divides into two syllables – Fi and Ji. In Korean characters, Fi means ‘escape’ or ‘shelter’ and Ji means ‘place’ or land’, so it’s interesting, isn’t it?”
Hundreds of Koreans believed Shin’s message, uprooting their lives and moving to Fiji. But earlier this month Shin and three others were arrested in Seoul, charged with enslavement of some 400 of their followers.
Korean authorities said that when church members arrived in Fiji, their passports were seized and some were forced to endure violent rituals. Many more were either forced to work on a plantation or at several other church-run businesses.
Those businesses, which South Korean prosecutors said were the front for a violent cult, were widely endorsed and supported by the highest levels of Fiji’s Government. Last year, it received a Prime Minister’s Business Award.
In their announcement, Korean authorities said those who were forced to work were watched over by “guardians,” who were personally selected by Ms Shin to prevent the followers from leaving.
While in Fiji, prosecutors said, they were forced to perform ritual beatings on one another, which Ms Shin said was done to avoid punishment from God. A father was forced to hit his son more than 100 times, while another was beaten so badly they have lasting brain damage, they said.
Five victims finally managed to escape and alert South Korean authorities about abuses endorsed by Grace Road Church. The church has strongly denied all allegations against it, and the Fiji government has yet to respond to requests for comment.
Grace Road Church never quite gained traction in South Korea, but the opposite seemed to be the case when it opened its doors in Fiji in 2014. It has grown into a small business empire in Fiji, courting several government ministers in the process.
Still, churches in Fiji have been wary of Grace Road for some time. Fiji Methodist Church — the country’s largest denomination — issued a statement in 2016 calling Grace Road Church a cult.
“Some of our friends have said that people who work for [Grace Road], they work in fear,” said a spokesperson for the Methodist church, Wilfred Regunamada.
“There is like a fear of doing something wrong and something will happen. A decision has been made for them.”