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Cho Yong-gi, founder of South Korea’s biggest church, dies at 85

The Rev. Cho Yong-gi
The Rev. Cho Yong-gi attends a prayer for peace on the Korean Peninsula in 2013 in Seoul.
(Hong Chan-sun / Newsis)

The Rev. Cho Yong-gi, whose megachurch in South Korea was a symbol of the postwar growth of Christianity in the country before that achievement was tainted by corruption and other scandals, died Tuesday. He was 85.

Cho, an emeritus pastor at Seoul’s Yoido Full Gospel Church — South Korea’s largest — died at a Seoul hospital, where he had been treated since he collapsed from a cerebral hemorrhage in July 2020, the church said.

“He conveyed 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 growing the Korean church, particularly developing Yoido Full Gospel Church as the world’s largest church.”

Better known as David Yonggi Cho or Paul Yonggi Cho abroad, Cho started his church in Seoul with five worshipers in 1958, when South Korea was still struggling to rebuild from the ashes of the 1950-53 Korean War. Under his leadership, the church achieved explosive growth and became a symbol of the rapid growth of Christianity in what was then a deeply Confucian country.

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In 1993, the church had more than 700,000 members, making it the world’s biggest church congregation, according to Guinness World Records, the church said. Church officials said that its membership has since declined to about 600,000 and that they cannot confirm whether their church remains the world’s largest.

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

Archbishop Carl Bean, who founded Unity Fellowship of Christ Church in Los Angeles and worked for many years as an AIDS activist, has died.

Despite his achievements, Cho and his family have been embroiled in scandals in recent years.

In 2017, he was convicted of breach of trust and causing financial losses to the church but avoided jail as he received a suspended prison term. In 2013, a female politician filed a paternity suit against one of his sons. His family has also faced long-running criticism that it dominated key posts at the church and other church-related organizations.

In 2008, Cho stepped down as the church’s top pastor, and a non-family member succeeded him in what the church called “an unprecedented, democratic” power transition. In South Korea, many church founders hand over their leadership positions to their children.

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

Three cases have been confirmed at Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, which had defied orders from Los Angeles County public health officials and a judge to stop holding indoor services.

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“It’s true that the Rev. Cho did meaningful work for Korean churches,” Lee said. “But in some sense, megachurches in South Korea began with Cho’s Yoido Full Gospel Church.”

in a 2015 government census, Protestantism was the biggest religion in South Korea, followed by Buddhism and Roman Catholicism. There were about 9.7 million Protestants at the time, accounting for nearly 20% of the country’s population of 49 million.

Cho is survived by three sons. His funeral is set for Saturday, and the church said it would receive mourners starting Wednesday.


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