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Cho Yong-gi, Megachurch leader of South Korea, dies at 85

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SEULI Rev. Cho Yong-gi, the charismatic founder of one of the world’s largest megacities, whose preaching of positive thinking helped foster the explosive growth of war-torn Christianity in South Korea, died Tuesday at a hospital in Seoul. He was 85 years old.

Mr. Cho, a pastor emeritus in The complete Yoido Gospel Church, had been hospitalized for more than a year after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage, the church said in a statement.

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

But it is still the largest church in South Korea, with more than 570,000 people attending services, in the main building on Yoido Island in the Han River, which divides Seoul in half, and in five shrines scattered around the capital. Separately, hundreds of smaller churches associated with the Yoido Full Gospel operate in South Korea and around the world.

Against the backdrop of Mr. Chos’s life, South Korea saw a rapid transformation from a war-torn agrarian country to one of the richest economies in the world. Industrialization was accompanied by a rise in Christianity, which became the largest religion in South Korea, replacing Buddhism, Confucianism, and Shamanism.

The complete Yoido Gospel and a handful of other churches housed millions of people who migrated from rural South Korea to major cities, particularly Seoul, in search of work and a sense of belonging.

Rev. Cho was a symbol of mega-church prosperity in South Korea, said Hwang Gui-hag, an author of several books on Christianity in South Korea and editor-in-chief of the Seoul-based Law Times, which specializes in church news. He has also helped globalize the South Korean church.

The South Korean megacities had a tendency to expand abroad. South Korea, which is about 28 percent Christian, has long been one of them the largest resources in the world of missionaries.

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

Mr. Cho was born in 1936 in Ulju, southeast of South Korea, when the Korean Peninsula was still a colony of Japan. He was a student at a vocational high school in Busan, a southern port city full of Korean War refugees, when he contracted tuberculosis. He has said that his miraculous healing came with a religious awakening. He was also influenced by Kenneth Tice, a missionary of God’s Pentecostal Assemblies from the United States.

Mr. Cho and Choi Ja-shil, a Pentecostal pastor who would later become his mother-in-law, started a church in a Seoul slum under a tent that was demolished by the U.S. military in 1958. The church had only five members the first day, three of whom were relatives of Mrs. Chois. Another was an old woman who entered the tent to avoid the rain.

But soon, Mr. Cho and Ms. Choi attracted worshipers as word spread that they could heal the sick at a time when millions were living without access to medical services. Mr. Cho also preached hope and positive thinking, convincing people struggling under post-war poverty 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, which was then an undeveloped island. (The island is now home to the country’s National Assembly and major financial institutions.) By 1993 the church had 700,000 worshipers and was recognized by the Guinness World Records as the largest congregation. The church continued to grow as Mr. Cho divided Seoul into several proselytizing sectors, appointing replacements for each.

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

Mr. Cho also started charitable programs for the needy, including raising money for children with heart disease. His $ 17 million plan to build a hospital for heart patients in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, is pending as relations between the two Koreas remain strained over the North’s nuclear weapons program.

Mr. Cho has left three sons. His wife, Kim Sung-hae, who once ran Hansei University, a church-affiliated school, died in February.

By the time he retired at age 75, Mr. Cho saw his ecclesiastical empire plunged into a series of scandals after his once-faithful church elders accused him and his family of embezzling church funds and demanding reforms. . His family was also accused of dominating key positions in the church and in church-related organizations, including Kukmin Ilbo, a daily newspaper.

There is an end to our lives, Mr. Cho said with a fragile voice during his last sermon in July 2020, shortly before he was hospitalized. When our life ends in this world, everyone must stand before God for judgment. So the most important thing you can do in this world is to believe in Jesus Christ and gain your salvation.

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