Asia

Inside Singapore's City Harvest megachurch scandal

City Harvest Church founder Kong Hee (R) arrives with his pop-singer wife Ho Yeow Sun (L) at the district state courts Image copyright AFP
Image caption City Harvest was founded by Kong Hee (right) and his wife, pastor turned pop singer Sun Ho (left)

The City Harvest megachurch scandal is the biggest corruption case squeaky-clean Singapore has seen in years. From racy music videos to a convoluted money trail, the case has riveted Singaporeans.

City Harvest Church was founded by the charismatic pastor Kong Hee and his wife, pastor turned pop singer Sun Ho, in 1989.

Known for its slick image and wealth-focused brand of Christianity, it has grown rapidly and is now estimated to have some 30,000 members in Singapore and elsewhere.

But on Wednesday, Kong and five other church leaders were convicted of fraud, in a case worth $50m Singapore dollars ($35m; £23m).

'China Wine'

The charges related to the church leadership's attempts to boost Ms Ho's music career worldwide, which ultimately failed.

In 2002, City Harvest launched what it called the Crossover Project - a scheme to fund Ms Ho's career and spread the gospel through her music. She was touted as a demure "singing pastor" in Asia, cutting several Mandarin singles that had modest success in the region.

Alarm bells were soon raised when a church member went to the press the following year with allegations of financial impropriety. He backed down and apologised after the church threatened to sue.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Wyclef Jean collaborated with Ms Ho on several of her singles

City Harvest soon decided that Ms Ho needed to crack the US market. She first struck out as a dance music singer, then had a makeover in 2007 and was re-styled as a vampy rapper-singer nicknamed Geisha.

The church engaged US rapper Wyclef Jean to produce an album with singles such as China Wine - a song depicting Ms Ho as a Chinese exotic dancer in Jamaica - and Mr Bill, in which she sang about killing her husband. They had little success.

Her new image and flashy lifestyle in Los Angeles, living in an expensive Hollywood Hills mansion, raised eyebrows. Many Singaporeans saw these as incongruous with her duties as a church pastor.

The collaboration tanked, and Xtron, a church-backed music production company that was managing the project, was left with millions of dollars in losses.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The church leaders said Sun Ho's music was being used for evangelism

Singaporean authorities launched their investigation into the church in 2010 after receiving complaints, and arrested the leaders two years later after a review by the commissioner of charities uncovered irregularities.

In court, prosecutors outlined a convoluted money trail in which six church leaders and accountants, including Kong, funnelled S$24m from a church building fund into sham bond investments into Xtron and an Indonesian glass maker.

They were later accused of using another S$26m to cover up their tracks.

The judge noted there was no evidence of "wrongful gain" by the defendants, but found them guilty of varying counts of criminal breach of trust and falsification of accounts. They are facing lengthy jail terms.

The leaders remain adamant that they have done no wrong - they insist they only had honest intentions in doing God's work - as does the church which continues to fully support them. It is a stance that has largely drawn scorn and criticism from Singaporeans.

Ms Ho - who was not on trial - said in a statement that the church leaders had "placed our faith in God and trust that whatever the outcome, He will use it for our good".

Prosperity gospel

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The church is one of the wealthiest in Singapore

City Harvest Church, also known as CHC, takes its cue from US counterparts with its slick pop concert-like services, stylishly dressed pastors and worship leaders, and preaching of the "prosperity gospel".

This is an enticing message which links wealth to Christianity - the stronger the faith and the more one gives to the church, the more wealth one will ultimately receive from God.

Sociologist Terence Chong, who has studied megachurches in Asia, tells the BBC that such churches tend to target the middle and working classes in the region.

"The socio-economic profile of their congregation provides them with a good financial pool to tap on. These churches also offer a sense of community and particular sensitivity to consumerism and capitalism, thus making them very relevant to the real world in the eyes of believers," he says.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Ms Ho looks likely to be the church's interim leader

The City Harvest scandal is unlikely to impact the growth of Asian megachurches on the whole, but will provide a good case study if the leaders are jailed, says Dr Chong, who is with the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

"The leadership [in such churches] is personality-based and relies less on institutional structures... Would the church see greater attrition or would an appointed caretaker be able to hold the flock together?"

CHC has made clear who that caretaker would be. Earlier this week Kong posted on his Instagram account a picture of his wife at an ordination ceremony.

"Please continue to pray for Sun and our new generation leadership team, as they work together for CHC 2.0!" he said.

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