What Is Grace Road Church? Video Emerges of Cult Leader Beating Followers

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In this file photo, the people wave South Korean flags and flowers, in Seoul, South Korea, on April 27. The Grace Road group left Korea for Fiji in 2014, but its leaders were arrested when they returned last month. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

Violent footage emerged from inside meetings of a controversial South Korean cult, showing a pastor beating her followers and ordering devotees—including family members—to attack one another.

The Grace Road Church was already under investigation by South Korean police, who believe pastor Shin Ok-ju forced converts to work for her without pay and live in poor conditions, apparently under threat of violence.

Shin and three other church leaders were arrested last month after returning from the Pacific island of Fiji, where she and about 400 followers lived since 2014. Shin and her fellow church members believed Jesus Christ would only return to an Earth where "God is God," according to the group's website.

She believed a famine would devastate the entire Korean peninsula, thus the church had to leave the country. The church ended up in Fiji, where the group began "laying the eternal foundation to raise Fiji to be the center of the world as promised in the Bible."

There, Church Road members grew vegetables and rice to sustain themselves and build their supposed utopia. But according to footage published by The Guardian, life was far from utopian for many of the residents.

Church leaders were already facing criminal allegations from former followers. Some of those who escaped the group said that once they landed in Fiji, their passports were confiscated and they were made to work without pay. The so-called "guardians," hand-picked by Shin, would enforce harsh discipline and prevent dissenters from leaving.

The videos showed Shin repeatedly striking worshipers inside a place of worship. At one point she threw one woman to the ground before pulling and cutting her hair with scissors. In another video, Shin ordered two women—believed to be mother and daughter—to hit each other repeatedly in the face.

The younger woman only delivered light slaps at first, prompting Shin to tell her: "You're hitting the cheeks of the enemy." She went on to hit the older woman 25 times.

The Guardian said the video was shared with the newspaper by South Korean police, who were set to head to Fiji to continue the investigation. The footage first aired on South Korea's Seoul Broadcasting System.

In another part of the video, witnesses described the beating of a man in his 70s, who was hit 600 to 700 times by different church members over several hours.T he elderly man could barely walk the next day, according to reports. He returned to South Korea and saw a doctor who diagnosed him with a subdural hematoma—a collection of blood between the skull and the brain usually caused by a head injury. He died the following year.

Former members said the ritual beatings were common, and took place on "threshing floors." As the video indicated, Shin had taken an active role in the violence even before the group traveled to Fiji.

A Grace Road statement did not deny the beatings, though a spokesperson said Shin "has biblically rebuked people by publicly reproving them so that they would turn back and no longer sin."

The statement claimed the threshing floor "is written throughout the whole Bible" and said the church was simply recreating it.

As for the elderly man, the church said the fact this his family members remained with the group showed its members had done nothing wrong. "If the man indeed died from being beaten hundreds of times, would his wife, his son, his daughter-in-law and his grandchildren stay happily in the church that supposedly beat their husband and father?" it asked.

The man's son, Arum Song, told the Seoul Broadcasting System that his father had taken part in a threshing floor but had only slapped himself and was not beaten by anyone else.

In 2014, Shin faced a $6 million lawsuit from a schizophrenic former member of the church, alleging the pastor had strapped him down for 10 days in an effort to cure his psychosis. The restraints cut off blood flow to his legs, one of which developed gangrene and had to be amputated, CNN reported.