Reverend Esther was on a mission. She wanted to help craft a world where, as her church put it, “only God is God.”
Only then would Earth be ready for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, she said on her website.
Esther, whose legal name in South Korea is Shin Ok-ju, predicted there was a great famine and believed she and her followers needed to find a new home.
They set their sights on Fiji, in the Pacific, and quickly began “laying the eternal foundation to raise Fiji to be the center of the world as promised in the Bible.”
The church’s corporate arm, GR Group, set to work opening businesses across the small Pacific island, in industries ranging from construction to agriculture.
Hundreds of people from around the world followed, according to the Grace Road Church website.
But the completion of this Christian utopia appears to have been interrupted by scandal.
Shin was arrested along with three of her followers on July 24 on charges of forced confinement and physical assault, South Korean police said. Authorities allege Shin was keeping some of her followers in Fiji against their will. Shin and one of her followers were arrested after flying into Seoul from Vietnam, while the other two were picked up at the church’s headquarters, police said.
For now, the most immediate concern for South Korean law enforcement is 400 of the church’s followers, some of whom are stranded in Fiji.
South Korean authorities said many of them appeared to have been stripped of their passports upon arrival by senior members of the church.
Some want to return to South Korea and are receiving consular assistance, but authorities are worried they are currently under the watchful eye of Shin’s more strident followers, who are called “guardians.”
The case has brought into focus the often secretive world of South Korea’s quasi-religious groups, and their surprising reach and influence.
The Grace Road Church maintained connections at the highest levels of the Fiji government. Pictures in local media and on the GR Group website show Fiji Prime Minister Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama personally appearing beside GR Group’s president to give the company an award for its business successes in 2017.
The award website called GR Group “a shining example of what hard work, dedication and ingenuity can translate into a business.”
The Prime Minister’s office declined to comment about the case in an email to CNN.
In a statement to CNN, GR Group denied wrongdoing and said Shin was arrested under false claims.
“GR Group is a group of Christians who see, hear, believe, and act by the Bible. We listened to the Words of God though our reverend, gathered from all over the world, and moved to Fiji for the God-given vision. We believe that Fiji is the promised land hidden in the Bible, beautiful and pristine land blessed by God,” the statement said.
“Those, who wish to slander us, have created unspeakable lies about passport confiscation, forced labor, incarceration, and violence,” the statement said.
“Because we are enraged by blasphemy of the name of God and dishonoring our reverend and GR Group, 400 of us want to speak up that all these are not true. All the stories reported in the media are not true and we have evidences to disprove. God shall let the truth be known to the entire world soon.”
The church has received negative attention in South Korea’s tight-knit Christian circles for its ritualistic practices, including the alleged beatings of its members as a form of exorcism.
They also have a reputation for threatening people and organizations who criticize them, according Tark Ji-Il, a professor of religion at Busan Presbyterian University and an expert on religious movements in South Korea.
“For Shin to be arrested for forced confinement and physical assaults shows that her church was not working as a ‘normal’ church but had characteristics of a pseudo-religion exploiting the followers,” Tark told CNN.
Shin’s lawyer, Kim Dae-yeol, told CNN the reports on Shin and her church so far seem “seriously distorted” compared to his findings. When asked follow up questions, Kim said that he could not comment any further as he just took this case only a couple of days ago and is still gathering information.
Grace Road Church made headlines in New York in 2014, when Shin was sued for $6 million by a schizophrenic man who previously belonged to the church.
The suit alleges that Shin supervised as he was strapped down for a 10-day period as part of a healing treatment for his psychosis. The restraints severely cut off blood flow to his legs, according to the suit, one of which developed gangrene and eventually required amputation. The case is ongoing.
A law firm listed as representing Shin told CNN they no longer do so and could not comment on the case. It’s not clear who is currently providing representation.
Fringe religious movements are surprisingly common in South Korea. Perhaps the most famous case involved the country’s last president, Park Geun-hye, who was taken down by a scandal with religious connections.
Park was impeached on allegations she shared classified information with her longtime confidant, Choi Soon-sil. Choi has often been described as a Rasputin-like character.
Choi’s father, Choi Tae-min, founded the Eternal Life Church, declared himself a modern-day Buddha and called for all people to strive for eternal life. The younger Choi took over after her father died in 1994 at age 82 and then became a spiritual mentor to Park.
But many smaller cases get little attention, as many people are afraid to speak ill of questionable religious organizations due to fear of possible defamation lawsuits. One academic expert declined to speak to CNN because of a string of lawsuits brought by religious groups against him.
A big business
Unlike other South Korean religious organizations, many of which are resolutely inward facing, the Grace Road Church had pursued a model of development more commonly associated with a multinational business conglomerate.
The GR Group opened up shop in Fiji in 2014 first investing in agricultural industries, according to its unverified Facebook page. The company has since grown in scope, opening shops and obtaining interests in various industries on the island – everything from construction to retail stores. These are important investments to a country with one of the world’s smallest GDPs that is trying to attract more foreign investors.
The GR Group says it is composed of 150 investors and their families who have traveled to Fiji, according to the company’s statement to the Fiji Sun.
It’s opened several restaurants and the company bills itself as “Fiji’s leading restaurant operator.”
The group also invested $5 million to Fiji National University to promote organic farming, according to the school’s website.
But it’s unclear how the church’s parishioners fit into the business side of things or if they’re employed by GR Group’s various companies across the island nation.
In a statement supplied to the Fiji Sun, the GR Group said it was a good corporate citizen, employing some 220 local Fijians.
South Korean authorities said they have asked Interpol, the international police agency, for assistance in securing the safety of its citizens in Fiji.
In the wake of the allegations, Fiji Police have opened a preliminary investigation into GR Group, according to local media.
But the country’s attorney general, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, said the arrest of Shin would not impact GR Group’s business interests.
“We have not had any repercussions on any of the projects they are currently undertaking as the same way as the shops are all running, patisseries and food outlets are all running,” Sayed-Khaiyum said, according to The Fiji Times.
Neither Sayed-Khaiyum’s office nor Fiji Police responded to CNN’s request for comment about the South Korean members of the Grace Road Church.
CNN’s Yazhou Sun contributed reporting