Cho Yong-gi, Who Spread Christianity in South Korea, Dies at 85

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His massive Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul was a symbol of the explosive growth of religion in the once war-torn country.

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Seoul – turn. cho yong-giThe charismatic founder of one of the world’s largest megachurches, whose exhortation of “positive thinking can” helped fuel the explosive growth of Christianity in war-ravaged South Korea, died Tuesday at a hospital in Seoul. Done. He was 85 years old.

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Mr. Cho, an emeritus pastor Yoido Full Gospel ChurchHe was hospitalized for more than a year after suffering a brain hemorrhage, Church said in a statement.

The church, which once claimed a congregation of more than 800,000 worshipers, has shrunk since Mr. Cho retired a decade ago, and he and other leaders were later implicated in scandal.

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But it is still the largest church in South Korea, with over 570,000 people attending services, in the main building on Yoido Island on the Han River that divides Seoul, as well as scattered around the capital city. Also in five sanctuaries. Separately, hundreds of smaller churches affiliated with the Yoido Full Gospel operate in South Korea and around the world.

Against the backdrop of Mr. Cho’s life, South Korea saw a rapid transformation from a war-torn agrarian country to one of the world’s wealthiest economies. With industrialization came the growth of Christianity, which became the largest religion in South Korea, replacing Buddhism, Confucianism, and shamanism.

The Yoido Full Gospel and a few other churches accommodated millions of people who moved from rural South Korea to larger cities, especially Seoul, in search of jobs and a sense of belonging.

“Rev. Cho was the epitome of the megachurch boom in South Korea,” said Hwang Gui-hyag, editor-in-chief of the Seoul-based Law Times, which has authored several books on Christianity in South Korea and specializes in the church. News. “He has also helped with the globalization of the South Korean Church.”

South Korean megachurches tended to expand overseas. South Korea, which is about 28 percent Christian, has long been one of these world’s largest resource of missionaries.

But like some of South Korea’s other megachurch founders, Mr. Cho’s legacy has been tarnished by corruption scandals and internal strife within his family and his organization. In 2017, he was found guilty of breach of trust and embezzlement by a South Korean court, although he received a suspended sentence and escaped prison.

Mr. Cho was born in Ulju, southeastern South Korea, in 1936, when the Korean Peninsula was still a colony of Japan. He was a vocational high school student in Busan, a southern port city filled with refugees from the Korean War, when he became ill with tuberculosis. He has said that his miraculous recovery coincided with a religious awakening. He was also influenced by Kenneth Tice, the Pentecostal Assembly of God Missionaries of the United States.

Mr. Cho and Choi Ja-shil, a Pentecostal pastor who would later become his mother-in-law, started a church under a tent in a Seoul slum that was abandoned by the US military in 1958. There were only five members on the first day of the church, three of whom were relatives of Ms. Choi. There was another old lady who had come to the tent to escape the rain.

But soon, Mr. Cho and Ms. Choi attracted worshipers hoping they could heal the sick at a time when millions lived without access to medical services. Mr. Cho also preached “hope” and “positive thinking”, giving people struggling with the post-war crisis the belief that religious faith would bring three rewards: wealth, health and spiritual comfort.

In 1973, to accommodate his growing congregation, Mr. Cho opened the church building in Yoido, an undeveloped island at the time. (The island is now home to the country’s National Assembly and top financial institutions.) By 1993 the church had 700,000 worshipers and was recognized by Guinness World Records as the largest congregation. The church continued to grow as Mr. Cho divided Seoul into several conversion zones, each with deputies.

Mr Hwang said that when he was studying in Canada in the 1990s, he was surprised to learn that more Canadians had heard of Mr Cho than the South Korean president.

Mr. Cho also launched charitable programs for the needy, including raising funds for children with heart diseases. His $17 million plan to build a hospital for heart patients in North Korea’s capital Pyongyang has been put on hold as relations between the two Koreas strain over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Mr. Cho has three sons. His wife, Kim Sung-hee, who once headed the church-affiliated school, Hansi University, died in February.

By the time he retired at the age of 75, Mr. Cho had seen his church empire engulfed in a series of scandals, as once loyal elders of his church accused him and his family of embezzlement of church funds. and demanded improvement. His family was also accused of dominating key positions in the church and church-affiliated organizations, including the Kukmin Ilbo, a daily newspaper.

“Our Lives End,” Mr. Cho said In a weak voice during his last sermon in July 2020, shortly before being admitted to hospital. “When our life in this world comes to an end, everyone must stand before God for justice. So the most important thing you can do in this world is to believe in Jesus Christ and achieve your salvation. Doing.”

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