Updated: 5.45pm (AEST)
Seoul, South Korea

AP

Rev Cho Yong-gi, whose founding of the biggest South Korean church once stood as a symbol of the post-war growth of Christianity in the country before that achievement was tainted by corruption and scandals, died Tuesday. He was 85. 

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

South Korea Rev Cho Yong gi

In this 11th October, 2013, photo, Rev Cho Yong-gi attends Grand Prayer Rally for Peace of the Korean Peninsula and for the Hope of the World Church at the World Cup Stadium in Seoul, South Korea. Rev Cho, whose founding of the biggest South Korean church once stood as a symbol of the post-war growth of Christianity in the country before that achievement was tainted by corruption and scandals, died on Tuesday, 14th September. He was 85. PICTURE: Hong Chan-sun/Newsis via AP.

“He conveyed the gospel of hope to the Korean people who fell into despair after the Korean War,” the church statement said. “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, the late pastor started his church in Seoul with five worshippers in 1958, when South Korea was still struggling to rebuild itself from the ashes of the 1950-53 Korean War. Under his leadership, the church achieved explosive growth and become 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 world’s biggest church congregation according to Guinness Book of Records, the church statement said. Church officials said the church’s membership has since declined to about 600,000 and that they cannot confirm whether their church remains as the world’s largest. 

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

Despite his achievement, Cho and his family have been embroiled in many 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 they 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 often hand over their leadership positions to their children. 

Lee Hunjoo, secretary-general at the Christian Alliance for Church Reform, a Seoul-based NGO, said the fast rise of Cho's church had led to other churches in South Korea pushing to expand their memberships too excessively.

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

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

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