Founder of South Korea’s biggest church, Cho Yong-gi, dies

Reverend Cho Yong-gi, whose founding of South Korea’s largest church once symbolized the post-war growth of Christianity in the country before this achievement was marred by corruption and other scandals, has died

SEOUL, South Korea – Reverend Cho Yong-gi, whose founding of South Korea’s largest church was a symbol of the growth of post-war Christianity in the country before this achievement was marred by corruption and other scandals, died Tuesday. He was 85 years old.

Cho, pastor emeritus of Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, died in a Seoul hospital where he had been treated since collapsing from a brain hemorrhage in July 2020, the church said.

“He brought the gospel of hope to the Korean people who fell into despair after the Korean War,” the church said in a statement. “He was instrumental in the growth of the Korean church, especially the development of Yoido Full Gospel Church as the largest church in the world.”

Better known as David Yonggi Cho or Paul Yonggi Cho abroad, the late pastor founded his church in Seoul with five worshipers in 1958, as South Korea still struggled to rebuild itself from the ashes of war. of Korea from 1950-1953. Under his leadership, the church grew explosively and became a symbol of the rapid growth of Christianity in what was then a deeply Confucian country.

In 1993, the church had more than 700,000 members, making it the largest religious congregation in the world according to Guinness World Records, the church said. Church officials said its membership numbers had since declined to around 600,000 and they could not confirm whether their church remained the largest in the world.

It is still the largest Protestant church in South Korea. Church officials said it has 400 pastors and evangelists in South Korea and 500 missionaries abroad.

Despite her success, Cho and her family have been embroiled in scandals in recent years.

In 2017, he was convicted of breach of trust and causing financial loss to the church, but avoided jail as he received a suspended prison sentence. In 2013, a politician filed a paternity complaint against one of her sons. Her family also faced long-standing criticism that she dominated key positions in the church and other church-related organizations.

In 2008, Cho resigned as the church’s first pastor and another family member took over in what the church called an “unprecedented and democratic” power transition. In South Korea, many church founders are handing over their leadership positions to their children.

Lee Hunjoo, general secretary of the Christian Alliance for Church Reform, a Seoul-based NGO, said the rapid rise of Cho’s Church has led other churches in South Korea to push excessively for it. expand their own congregations.

“It is true that Reverend Cho has done meaningful work for Korean churches,” Lee said. “But in a sense, the mega-churches in South Korea started with Cho’s Yoido Full Gospel Church.”

Protestantism was the largest religion in South Korea, followed by Buddhism and Catholicism, according to a 2015 government census. There were around 9.7 million Protestants at the time, representing almost 20% of the country’s 49 million people.

Cho is survived by three sons. His funeral is set for Saturday and the church will receive mourners starting Wednesday, according to the church.

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