Running into cults isn’t uncommon in Melbourne.
Content warning: mention of rape
Cults on Campus: How They’re Targeting Students
Running into cults isn’t uncommon in Melbourne. Falun Gong, famous for their far-right social views and persecution at the hands of the CCP, can be found most days at Melbourne Central. Hare Krishnas run restaurants that offer cheap vegetarian meals and on Friday nights will march through the city with their trademark chanting and music. I’ve been approached by Mormon missionaries on several occasions, who will politely discuss life and theology with me before inevitably asking me to their temple so they can tell me how Jesus visited America or something. Extremist, hyper-proselytising organisations like these swarm our city, but where you wouldn’t expect them to operate is right on our University of Melbourne campuses.
In August of this year, a thread on r/unimelb provoked a strong response from Redditors in its warning of a cult recruiting through our university. It describes how a secretive organisation known as Shincheonji has targeted students on campus or via DMs in an attempt to bring them into their fold. One comment linked to an article explaining how Shincheonji bore considerable responsibility for the outbreak of COVID-19 in South Korea due to their strict enforcement of attendance at events where face masks were banned.
Shincheonji are a Christian new religious movement that originated in South Korea during the 1980s. Their founder Lee Man-hee, claiming to be the second coming of Jesus Christ, has fostered an intense personality cult. Shincheonji are a doomsday cult, believing that “the end is nigh” and only the followers of Lee will receive salvation. Their membership globally is around 317,320 according to the Health Ministry of South Korea .
Yet, Shincheonji are only one of many cults that have penetrated the halls of our universities. One student informed me that they were recruited by another Korean religious movement known as Providence, or ‘Jesus Morning Star’. Providence was founded by the convicted rapist Jung Myung Seok and preaches that spiritual redemption can be achieved for Christian women by having sex with Jung, who similarly claims to be the second coming of Jesus Christ.
When you look around for acknowledgement of this phenomenon from the University of Melbourne, you’ll find nothing. In responding to my emails inquiring about what measures they have in place to mitigate cult presences on campus, they only reiterated their harassment policy: “The University is dedicated to ensuring our campuses and workplaces are safe areas for students, staff and visitors. We urge any student with allegations of harassment or misconduct to please come forward via our Safer Community Program so these matters can be properly addressed.”
One student described how a relative had been recruited some years ago, but when their family attempted to acquire support from the University, they were met with only denial of there even being cults on campus from management. That relative is still in the cult to this day, and they have never been the same since. The University were intent on ignoring this issue and barging ahead with the approach of simply refusing to help students in any way.
Who do they target?
The r/unimelb thread warning about Shincheonji explained that the cult’s recruiters will pick potential recruits based on signs of Christian faith online or in person: crosses, Bible verses in bios, involvement in church groups.
Yet, that doesn’t mean that only the religious need beware. A student described to me that materials they had seen for Providence instructed recruiters to approach any students who were alone. This is usually done in the opening weeks of uni to take advantage of all the clueless first-years looking for friends.
Essentially, any student that seems isolated or unaware becomes a target of these cults. International students and those with mental illnesses are particularly vulnerable.
“From the people I’ve met in the cult (which is a lot over the years), there seems to be a clear pattern of people who are far away from family, whether that’s geographically or emotionally, and people who have suffered great trauma, family troubles and mental illness. At the services I attended I actually felt bad for the people that were there. They were mainly uni students around my age and all looked like they were in terrible states of mind.”
How do they bring you in?
A student who became entangled with Shincheonji in their first year of university explained to me that there was a deliberate process behind how the cult roped in new recruits.
“The person that reaches out is termed the ‘leaf,’” said the anonymous student. “Their job is to bring you to the ‘branch’ and then the ‘tree’, which is the group itself. Most of the time, the ‘leaf’ will act as if they have never been to church and are interested in finding a buddy to join them. This is what my ‘leaf’ did. Her role was communicating to the group leaders about my engagement and my thoughts whilst posing as a first-timer that is in the same position as me.”
This indicates that these cults are aware that these students are often first-years looking to make friends who will be easily compelled along the indoctrination process.
Once these students are in their grip, it becomes awfully difficult to extricate them. This is because the recruitment program is designed to pull them deeper. As soon as the new members have gone to one event, they are invited to more and more that increasingly consume their time. Through this entire period, they’re unaware that they’re in a cult because the recruiters masquerade as members of a normal religious group.
“These classes begin pretty chill and friendly, until they start trying to brainwash you and eat up your time. One class a week became three to four times a week, and they start telling you to keep lessons a secret from friends and family–to which I began feeling uneasy as I didn’t think I needed to hide anything from my family who are Christian.”
One student described how Providence design profiles on prospective members, collating information that they use to mould recruitment tactics to target that individual and isolate them from their support networks. If students come across as shy and non-confrontational, the recruiters know to get in their face with requests. If they know the newcomers just moved to Melbourne, they can present themselves as the vehicle towards a healthy social life in the recruit’s new home. They will do whatever it takes to pull new members deeper.
The gambit isn’t revealed until months in. An ex-Shincheonji member didn’t find out what they were involved in was a cult until they had been attending events for three months. Once the recruit was deemed ‘ready’, they received an elaborate presentation explaining that they were part of “Zion Bible Study” (a pseudonym of Shincheonji) and that Shincheonji are labelled a cult because “other churches are jealous of them and… [do so] as a means of attack".
By this point, recruits have built up a solid social circle within the cult, who knows their contact details, schedule, and potentially home address. Reaching the authorities might not be the best solution without concrete evidence proving that the action is related to a crime. And so, for many, there’s little choice but to keep walking the path of indoctrination.
What do we do?
There can be little doubt that the University of Melbourne are aware there is a cult problem in their institution, but they have done nothing to address it. No statements, no policies, nothing. It’s been known since at least the 1990s that there are cults active on university campuses across the Anglophone world. Still, nothing.
To be fair to the University, there is a big problem in addressing it: it’s beyond them. Cults like Shincheonji don’t operate in isolated pockets; they’re a network interconnected across multiple universities. The leaders of the group one student joined through Melbourne ended up being from RMIT.
Still, there are steps the University can take. One student whose relative was recruited stated that “education really is the most important thing though [because] coming from a pretty traditional family, the word ‘cult’ was unheard of to most of my family members which I think made them see my relative as the person in the wrong and also meant that they didn’t know how to deal with the situation or talk about it.”
The University of Sydney dispersed warnings about Shincheonji to students via email as early as 2019. Why can’t the University of Melbourne do the same?
“There’s a lot of denial and judgement when you talk about cults, plus a lot of blaming the people who get indoctrinated. So, I would’ve liked to see a more understanding community who actually recognised these people as victims as well as their families. I would’ve liked to see more people offering support because this type of thing can happen to anyone. I also feel like the uni and councils/communities should have support groups for people affected and trying to leave cults,” the student added.
This is where it’s possible for the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) to step in: they can offer the support systems necessary to mitigate students joining and remaining in cults. They can also run campaigns warning new students about red flags and provide alternative forms of social activity that they can get involved in instead. And they can educate students on how to help out friends that might be in the process of being indoctrinated.
As this is a problem bigger than the University, the response is necessarily bigger than them as well. The reality is that cults thrive when there are too many people that the institutions of our society are failing. They thrive when there are too many people who are lonely, disenfranchised, marginalised. That’s why they’ve been able to grow so rapidly during lockdowns. Therefore, the solution to cults is to cultivate social environments that are happier, healthier and more inclusive. That’s where organisations like UMSU can take action, but ultimately it’s a task for all of us to carry out. We need to look out for each other and reach out to those who can easily be left behind in the community so that it is us filling the gaps in the lives of the vulnerable instead of antisocial cults.