Churches in New Zealand are being warned of a South Korean-linked group accused of being a religious cult that infiltrates churches and uses "real deceit" to recruit members.
A Herald investigation has found that the group, Shincheonji, or the "New Heaven and New Earth" church, has set up a base in Auckland.
Members of the group, also known as Shincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony, or SCJ, believe its founder Lee Man-hee is the appointed successor of Jesus Christ.
A University of Auckland law student and former Shincheonji church attendee claimed members of the group helped his mate "escape his family" in Auckland and paid for his airfare to live with believers in Korea.
Another student also allegedly donated his entire year's university fees to the group after he was convinced that earthly education was of no use to him.
Police here said they were "gathering intel" about the group, and assessing threat and response.
Last November, the Church of England in the United Kingdom issued a formal alert to 500 parishes in London about its activities and called for vigilance.
The New Zealand Korean Churches Association, representing Korean Protestant churches, has been rolling out similar warnings to its member churches.
Spokesman Edward Moon said the association was planning to extend the alert to all other Christian denominations here.
A Shincheonji representative in Auckland did not respond to the Herald's request for comments.
Moon described Shincheonji as a "dangerous cult".
"They are extreme people...they can harm families, and cause serious problems in society and churches as well," Moon said.
"They send their people into the church, some try to get into positions of pastors, with the final aim of taking over the church."
Overseas reports claimed some who got involved with the group gradually withdrew from family and friends, and lied about their real lives.
"The cult has also helped many believers run away from home, cut ties with their families and (they have been) asked to give all their money to Shincheonji," Moon said.
"They're not only targeting Koreans but non-Koreans, including Europeans, Asians and Africans."
The Herald uncovered the secretive group's Auckland headquarters, which is based on the fourth floor of a commercial building in Grafton.
It had two rooms, one a classroom for Bible studies and the other a worship room where only the "purified" could enter, we were told.
The double door entrance, with a large Shincheonji emblem, marks the entrance to the worship room.
Inside, an altar stands against a backdrop of a blue sky with clouds, rainbow and sun.
A member who gave his name as Jack Yoon confirmed the property was used for Shincheonji activities, but declined to be interviewed.
Massey University religion and cult expert Professor Peter Lineham said the presence of the group in New Zealand was "concerning".
The group's 2016 annual report, written in Korean script, confirmed it had set up bases in two Oceania countries.
Lineham said Shincheonji's recruitment method of new members involved "real deceit".
"They pretend that they themselves are searching for the answer but they are actually full members of the cult," Lineham said.
"They lead people along to believe that they're individually discovering together, and then the truth comes out only when the person has effectively joined up."
Lineham said Shincheonji was a "Christian conversionist, separationist group where there's a messiah at the heart of it".
Founded in the 1980s, followers are taught to believe that Lee, the founder, was the second coming or the returned Jesus Christ.
"It fits with a number of similar cults, where...the new messiah will take over the role of Jesus and comes with all the authority of Jesus...it has a huge, huge appeal," Lineham said.
"This type of religion involves learning to read the Bible in a very distinct way, so you read the Bible as a kind of code, and you're looking for ways to interpret this code...everything then confirms the 'absolute truth' of this kind of movement."
Lineham said the identification of the messiah blocks members out of "any ability to see anything else".
For many Koreans living here, Lineham said, churches provided a way of connecting with each other.
"A cult usually provides for those who are feeling insecure, or troubled, or struggling a much closer group and warmer network than most other churches," he said.
"That's what I suspect is the appeal, and of course there's a bit of money provided to fly people back to Korea to connect them with the leaders of the cult back in Korea."
Shincheonji members are alleged to have visited church congregations and student groups in universities here, inviting people to special study groups.
Senior pastor John Kim of the Immanuel Korean Church said he had studied the recruitment and infiltration methods used by the group.
"They befriend people, invite them to Bible classes, and when a friendship is established then they advocate their beliefs and gradually encourage believers to cut ties with family and friends," Kim said.
"Some of the members become 'reapers' and get sent out to infiltrate churches. Their aim is to eventually takeover these churches and turn them into Shincheonji churches."
John Lee, a senior pastor at the Korean Auckland Community Christian Church, has for the past two weeks been warning his congregation about Shincheonji.
"I look very carefully at every new member because I do not want Shincheonji to come into my church," Lee said.
"Shincheonji is poison, and churches are all very worried that they are in New Zealand."
Police ethnic liaison officer Jason Park said police was aware of the group's presence in Auckland.
"Police are still gathering intel about (Shincheonji) and assessing any threat and response," Park said.