Former Australian members of an international church with a claimed 3.3 million followers say they were pressured to have abortions and discouraged from having children, while young members of one branch were reprimanded by leaders who would pinch and smack them.
The World Mission Society Church of God (WMSCOG) followers say “calculated and coercive” methods were used to ensure compliance with its doctrine.
The former members say they need therapy to heal from their traumatic experiences in the group, which included a constant anxiety the world was about to end, and the obligation to help everyone they met attain salvation, or be condemned to hell.
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They say their time as members “stripped them of their personalities”, squashed their hopes for a future on Earth, and left them financially struggling and socially isolated — some with broken marriages.
Ahn Sahng-hong founded WMSCOG in 1964 in South Korea based on a belief that in Christianity there is God the father, and God the Mother, and in some countries Ahn is regarded as the father and second coming of Jesus.
Ahn Sahng-hong founded World Mission Society Church of God in 1964. Credit: Tara Fyer-Tamang
The church claims to have 3.3 million members across 175 countries, but has caused controversy, particularly in the US, where it was banned from two university campuses after students complained about feeling intimidated.
It’s being sued by former US member Michelle Ramirez, who alleges she was psychologically coerced into paying 10 per cent of her income to the church, alienated from friends and family, and told she would need to get an abortion if she became pregnant, court documents state.
WMSCOG has attempted to have the court case dismissed, but has so far been unsuccessful.
Amy was home alone when she got a knock at the door. Within minutes, a priest was putting a veil over her head
WMSCOG has attempted to sue former members, who made similar claims to Ramirez and for comparing the church to a cult, for defamation, but the cases were ultimately dropped or unsuccessful.
But in at least one case, a judge called some of the former members’ claims exaggerated.
Locals speak out
Erica* is one former member whose memories from the almost two decades of her membership at a church in Australia still haunt her.
She alleges at her WMSCOG church children were physically disciplined during services, sometimes through pinching, smacking or twisting their fingers, often leaving them in tears.
“Especially during worship time, they don’t want kids to move. When they move, they (church supervisors) would pinch them or smack them,” she told 7NEWS.com.au.
“My son, he suffered from day one in that church … every time I remember what he went through, I will just cry.”
Erica alleges families at the church at times saw the “physical abuse”, or their children — who were separated during worship — told them about the incidents when they went home.
The World Mission Society Church of God claims to have 3.3 million members. Credit: Supplied
While she felt guilty that her son was being disciplined in such way, Erica said she was made to believe it was the right thing to do based on the religious texts shown to her.
When a group of mothers verbally complained to the church’s leadership about their children being disciplined about eight years ago, Erica said the church stopped physically punishing children.
But she alleges parents were encouraged parents to discipline their children in such a way at home.
Dreams of family crushed
A number of women from international churches have also spoken to 7NEWS.com.au, alleging they were pressured to have abortions or discouraged from having children because it would take away time they could commit to the church.
During each church service, members’ attendance is recorded.
Some former members said they were spending more than 30 hours a week, equivalent to a part-time job, at church participating in services, and doing unpaid work such as preaching and participating in other church activities.
They said they were shamed and harassed with phone calls, text messages and home visits from church leaders if they could not attend.
World Mission Society Church of God members said they were required to attend church for many hours, and their attendance was recorded. Credit: Supplied
When Erica became pregnant with her youngest child, she alleges a senior church member told her it was “selfish” and needed to have an abortion because “there was no time” for her to have a child.
“I was advised not to have more children because the last day (on Earth) is coming soon, and we have to do the gospel work,” she said.
Two other women who became pregnant while part of the same church allege they were questioned about their pregnancies, leaving them feeling pressured to have an abortion.
Erica continued her pregnancy and, as a result, she was stripped of her supervisor role, which she said was the church’s way of asserting its disapproval.
Former house church leader Tara Fryer-Tamang visited South Korea to meet some of the church’s senior members. Credit: Supplied
Former house church leader Tara Fryer-Tamang was arranged to marry another member through an Australian church, and the pair mutually agreed they would “sacrifice” their family plans to do gospel work.
She said it was a decision she “struggled with” because she dreamt of starting a family, but the church’s leaders made it clear having children was not celebrated because the world was ending, and children would take away from their church commitments.
Fryer-Tamang said another member of her church was so anxious about how she would be treated by her peers after becoming pregnant, she became noticeably depressed and broke down in tears at a social event.
A pattern of allegations
The WMSCOG members also alleged they were told not to google the church when they joined because the information they would read, particularly from former followers, was “slander by people possessed by Satan”.
The members said there was a “manipulative, calculated and coercive” method of separating members during bible study or church activities, so they would not disclose issues they had with the church.
“Every month we would have analysis meetings … we would get together and write on a whiteboard the names of all members of the church …. and we would tally up against their names how many services they would be keeping, how often they were tithing,” Fryer-Tamang said.
“In order to ensure successful indoctrination, less indoctrinated members were closely monitored to make sure they would not be faced with questioning members,” she said.
Tara Fryer-Tamang said World Mission Society Church of God members would harass her if she could not attend services. Credit: Supplied
Both Erica and Fryer-Tamang left the religion burnt out from the extensive hours they had to commit, and say they were left emotionally and financially drained.
All WMSCOG followers, including children, are said to be instructed to give at least 10 per cent of their income to the church, plus more money when the church had events, or needed to cover administrative bills.
Fryer-Tamang estimated she was donating between 15 and 20 per cent of her annual income to the church, while Erica estimated she was donating 30 per cent, to also cover her children’s contribution.
Members said church leaders would make members feel guilty if they could not afford to donate, by telling them they needed to do further study on tithing since they didn’t understand the concept.
“Some days, literally, my kids didn’t have dinner and I just had to make sure I had money for fuel to go to the church because if I didn’t go, it would become a big issue (with the church),” Erica said.
WMSCOG followers were expected to talk about their beliefs in a bid to ‘save’ others. Credit: Supplied
On Saturdays for Sabbath, some members report being at church from as early as 6am until midnight, and then they would revisit, sometimes for two or three hours a day, daily, before or after work on weekdays.
“I was constantly trying to preach to everybody I met … I was incredibly worried constantly about their salvation … which brings us to social life, because no one wants to be around you,” Fryer-Tamang said.
“I would not be able to do things that I enjoyed because of the guilt and shame that I would feel if I did those things … and the guilt I was made to feel (by other members).
“It’s a crazy, crazy demand on your psychology.”
All WMSCOG members are encouraged to preach to non-members to help them attain salvation before the world ends. Credit: Supplied
Erica was asked for her weekly schedule to ensure her attendance and described being “so scared” the pastor would find out she was not coming to church.
On a number of occasions when Tamang could not attend a service, other members arrived at her home to question where she was.
When she attended a family emergency on a Saturday, she was made to feel guilty for missing the Sabbath by her senior peers.
The women’s claims were repeated by multiple former Australian members, as well as members in the United States, who all characterised their time at the church as psychologically damaging.
Esperanza was a former member of WMSCOG in the United States. Credit: Supplied
“I’m not afraid,” former US member Esperanza Salazar said.
“I have proof of everything. I have my phone and everything is in there.
“You really have to re-train your whole brain … when you’re there … really you’re just a robot. They completely strip you of who you are.”
Two WMSCOG churches were contacted for comment, but only one responded to questions sent by 7NEWS.com.au.
The pastor of that church, who did not want to be named, said he had dedicated a committee to investigate the former members’ claims.
He said all their allegations were false, but declined to comment on whether complaints about children being physically disciplined were raised with him in the past.
He said family issues and the church were completely separate, and there were titleholders of the church that had children.
“None of the tip-offs are the teachings of our church, so it is necessary to confirm whether the informants are members of our church and if the contents of the tip-offs were what they experienced,” he said.
The pastor pointed out the church does community work, such as environmental clean-ups and blood drives, and has received international recognition for this.
“The (church) members are all the individual members, they have free will to do what to do and what not to do,” he said.
Coercive control and cults
University of Salford psychology lecturer Dr Linda Dubrow-Marshall has a special interest in cults and their use of coercive control against members.
She said the claims of WMSCOG members were forms of “reproductive coercion” and labour exploitation where members were “manipulated psychologically through guilt inducement techniques which were very shaming”.
She said these techniques were commonly used by “dangerous” cults that would take over their members’ lives, socially isolate them, and subsequently discourage them from critical thinking.
“The group becomes your identity, you’re lost in it and your personal needs don’t matter,” Dubrow-Marshall said.
“If you’re being told that this is what God wants, that’s like the ultimate authority, so it’s very hard to challenge that.
“(And) You don’t think as clearly when you’re sleep-deprived,” she said.
University of Salford psychology lecturer Dr Linda Dubrow-Marshall Credit: Paul Burrows Manchester /Supplied
Several WMSCOG branches in Australia are registered charities, receiving Commonwealth tax concessions.
The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) said in a statement no enforcement action had been taken against the charities to date, but said concerned members could formally lodge their concerns with the commission.
“Safeguarding is part of a charity’s primary duty of care. Safeguarding is protecting the welfare and human rights of people connected with a charity or its work – particularly people that may be at risk of abuse, neglect or exploitation,” the spokesperson said.
“The ACNC will act swiftly and firmly where vulnerable people or significant charity assets are at risk, where there is evidence of serious mismanagement or misappropriation, or if there is a serious or deliberate breach of the ACNC Act or ACNC Regulations.”
*Name withheld for privacy
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