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Stranger danger: How the Shincheonji cult is recruiting new members around Melbourne’s CBD

“Apocalyptic” cult Shincheonji are on a recruitment drive in many popular Melbourne locations.

A regular recruiting location at Melbourne Central. (Photo by Lily Kristanto)

When two men approached Skylar Roberts outside of Melbourne Central station, she didn’t think anything was off.

The trio had a “pretty normal conversation” about where she studied and where she came from.

“They were really nice and friendly,” she said.

But Roberts would later learn this was not the case.

Roberts thought she was just making new friends in Melbourne, but little did she know this is the newest recruitment technique of the apocalyptic South Korean Shincheonji (SCJ) cult.

Cult information and family support president Tore Klevjer said young people like Skylar are “cult targets”.

Klevjer said young people start to pull away from their family and develop their own opinions which makes them vulnerable.

After exchanging social media details, Roberts was invited to an online Bible study class purportedly run by SCJ to “bring the community together”.

The 300,000-strong global cult founded by Lee Man-Hee preaches that “the apocalypse is nigh” and he is the promised saviour.

While little is known about the organisation in Australia, its followers are approaching people in many prominent Melbourne locations such as Melbourne Central, Flinders Street and Southern Cross Station. 

In particular, these cults are targeting young university students who may be looking to make friends and join a social circle.

Klevjer said young people at a “crossroads” in life can struggle to find direction, increasing their susceptibility to cult recruitment.

“A lot of time uni students are separated from frames of reference, friends, family, so they’re pretty easy targets,” he said.

In Roberts’ case, this manifested as her Bible study commitment tripling from one two-hour weekly class to a “suffocating” six hours.

“They want your whole life focused on this thing,” Roberts said.

The content taught by the cult was similar to what Roberts had learnt prior at her mainstream Christian church - however some of the other teachings she had “never heard of before”. 

“I never really questioned it because I suppose they are the experts, they know better than me,” she said.

Klevjer said cults usually “preempt” the idea that other people are going to tell them to leave.

Roberts recalls the teachers telling her that the devil sometimes uses your friends, parents and family to “get you away from God”.

Klevjer said this is to completely cut that person off from anyone who may teach this person to think clearly again. 

“It's part of their narcissistic power control,” she said.

After leaving the cult in June, Roberts said she “didn’t know what to believe anymore”.

“I was a bit in denial, they were just nice people,” she said. 

“I didn't think that was going to happen to me.”

Klevjer said “no one actually joins a cult”, they join a group of “loving, caring people”. 

Klevjer said people in cults are “very convincing” at pushing their program because they do not believe they're in a cult themselves.

“The most convincing liar is the person who believes he’s not lying,” he said.

When asked what should be done to tackle this problem, Klevjer said “awareness around it is really paramount”.

Roberts agrees awareness around the dangers of SCJ is important and thinks “some people don’t take it seriously”. 

Roberts recalls telling her friends about her involvement with SCJ, to which one of them laughed at the situation.

“When you were in this thing, they were brainwashing you, they were actually using you, they weren't trying to be friends with you,” she said.

“They were teaching you wrong things, and then for someone to just laugh at it? It hurts.”

Roberts said as a lot of Australians were not religious, they might be naïve to the potential dangers of getting involved with an organisation without undertaking independent research.

“It would be good to have awareness but the thing is how open minded are these people that you’re telling this to,” she said.

Roberts said raising awareness remained a challenge.

“Who’s to say they won’t just brush it off?”

*Skylar Roberts is a pseudonym.

If the content in this article has been distressing in any way, the following helpline can be a good place to start finding support:

To learn more about cults, or to access support, please visit the Cult Information and Family Support Inc. website.


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