City Harvest Church leaders on trial in embezzlement case

Last year, Kong Hee, founder and pastor of one of Singapore’s richest churches was charged in court for allegedly siphoning off millions of the congregation’s money to support his wife’s singing career.

Hee’s arrest — and that of fives other leaders in the church — followed a two-year investigation by Singapore’s Commissioner of Charities and the Commercial Affairs Department of the Singapore police into City Harvest Church.

Kong Hee and Sun Ho

The accused have agreed to be jointly tried, and the trial started on May 15.

The prosecution alleges that the six leaders, all members of the church’s management board, have misappropriated more than Sg$50 million (nearly US $40 million) of church funds and have committed criminal breach of trust.

As reported by the Wall Street Journal, according to the Commissioner of Charities

“[The] funds were used with the purported intention to finance Ho Yeow Sun’s secular music career to connect with people,” the Commissioner of Charities said in a statement released Tuesday. “There was a concerted effort to conceal this movement of funds from its stakeholders.”

Previous reports in Singapore media indicate that Ho Yeow Sun, who is better known as Sun Ho, believed international stardom would help spread the church’s message.

That has not happened.

Instead, AsiaOne says a loss of more than $14 million was made from the production of an album for the pop singer.

AFP reports that

Prosecutors at the start of the trial Wednesday said the accused channeled money allotted for the church’s building into buying sham bond investments in church-linked companies so they could finance Ho’s secular music career.

They allegedly falsified church accounts to make it appear the bonds were redeemed, in a practice the prosecutors called “round-tripping”.

“These transactions were thus designed to throw the auditors off the scent of the bogus bonds,” said Deputy Public Prosecutor Mavis Chionh.

Sun Ho herself is not on trial, the Brisbane Times says, and early this week she

was reinstated by Singapore’s Commissioner of Charities as City Harvest’s executive director after a review found she had not contributed to mismanagement of the church…

City Harvest Church

City Harvest Church was co-founded in 1989 by Kong Hee and Sun Ho.

It has more than 30,000 members, assets estimated at more than Sg$100 million (figures from 2009), and affiliates in Malaysia, Taiwan, Indonesia, Australia and 44 other countries.

City Harvest teachings emphasize a version of the prosperity gospel — a doctrine that teaches material blessings and health are God’s will for all Christians, as long they donate large sums of money to whomever tells them about this scheme.

The church’s teachings and practices appear to veer into an abusive use of authority.

City Harvest Church pastor charged in $19 million fraud case

The founder of one of Singapore’s richest churches was charged in court Wednesday for allegedly syphoning off nearly $19 million of the congregation’s money to support his wife’s singing career.

AFP reports

Pastor Kong Hee, 47, faced three charges of “criminal breach of trust” relating to the misuse of the funds of the City Harvest Church, one of Singapore’s biggest with a membership of over 30,000.

Kong was accused of “dishonestly misappropriating monies” from the church’s building fund over several years to support the career of his wife Ho Yeow Sun, who had tried to become a music star in the United States.

The church, which has affiliates in neighbouring Malaysia and other countries, is known for services that resemble pop concerts.

The pastor’s wife, now in her early 40s, was hoping international stardom would help spread the church’s message, according to previous reports in the Singapore media.

The Wall Street Journal says

The arrests follow a two-year investigation by Singapore’s Commissioner of Charities and the Commercial Affairs Department of the Singapore police into the church. According to a police statement issued Tuesday, Kong Hee, the church’s 47-year-old founder, is among the five people arrested Tuesday who will be charged with conspiracy to commit criminal breach of trust. All five are due to be charged in court Wednesday.

The Commissioner of Charities said the investigation commenced in May 2010 found financial irregularities totalling at least 23 million Singapore dollars (US$18 million) from the church’s charity funds.

“These funds were used with the purported intention to finance Ho Yeow Sun’s secular music career to connect with people,” the Commissioner of Charities said in a statement released Tuesday. “There was a concerted effort to conceal this movement of funds from its stakeholders.”

The Wall Street Journal also explains that

Like megachurches elsewhere, City Harvest has often courted criticism both from secularists, wary of Christians’ influence on civic matters, and other Christians, who disagree with its brand of so-called “prosperity theology,” a religious school of thought that teaches material blessings and health are God’s will for all Christians.

Bloomberg News writes that

Kong, the senior pastor and president of the City Harvest Church’s management board, was arrested with four others, including the vice president and finance manager, the police said in an e-mailed statement yesterday. […]

“There is no case that is being brought against the church,” Executive Pastor Aries Zulkarnain said in a statement on City Harvest’s website. “The church management board continues to provide guidance on the running of the church,” adding that weekend services will continue as usual.

The charities regulator suspended Kong, his wife, who also goes by the name Sun Ho, and six others from executive roles or employment at the church, according to the commissioner’s statement, which lists Ho as an agent and executive member of City Harvest. The church, registered as a charity since 1993, had earnings of about S$72 million for the year ended Oct. 31, 2009, according to the regulator of charities.

The BBC writes that

The five, who were arrested on Tuesday, have been offered bail of S$500,000 each. Their passports have also been impounded and they have been suspended from their duties.

The five are now out on bail, and the church’s website says their next court appearance is scheduled for July 25, 2012.

According to Singapore’s Straits Times City Harvest Church members were surprised at the arrests but keep faith with their leader:

Mostly, they said they would stand by their pastor and church – at least for now – even if they were disappointed by the turn of events.

The Straits Times approached 25 parishioners of City Harvest Church on Tuesday and about half did not want to be interviewed, saying they wanted more information before making a judgment.

Of those who did speak, the overwhelming sentiment was that they still had faith in Pastor Kong Hee and the church.

Music video by Sun performing China Wine feat Wyclef Jean

In 2003 some City Harvest Church members expressed uneasiness over the church’s support of Ho Yeow Sun’s pop career.

Back then the Straits Times wrote

Her husband and church founder, Reverend Kong Hee, was described as giving updates of his wife’s singing and promotional activities during church service.

One church member was quoted as complaining: ‘Even before the name of God is glorified, the husband always praises her first and shows her video.’

The report also said there were suggestions that the church was being used to drum up votes for Ho at this Friday’s MTV Asia Awards. […]

Besides being asked to vote, a member said church-goers were asked to buy Sun*day, while another said the 13-year-old church was fast becoming a ‘personality cult thing’.

One of the critics later publicly apologized.

Singapore’s City Harvest Church Controversy Comes to the Hollywood Hills

Over the past few weeks, City Harvest Church pastor Kong Hee, a Christian leader in the Charismatic Movement who oversees more than 40 affiliates in such places as Singapore, Taiwan, and Indonesia, has been the focus of a police probe in Singapore for the possible misuse of church funds. Now Hee’s questionable financial dealings may be surfacing in L.A. Hee’s pop star wife, singer Ho Yeow Sun, who’s better known as Sun Ho, is renting a Hollywood Hills mansion for $20,000 per month, according to The New Paper. Asian journalists, who have jumped on the story, don’t know if anything is illegal about the expensive accommodations, but it’s certainly a huge public relations gaffe for the embattled Hee and City Harvest Church. [Read more...]

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‘I have done nothing wrong’

Though upset by charges of impropriety in City Harvest Church’s support of her pop career, pastor Ho Yeow Sun will return to perform for the MTV Asia Awards The Straits Times (Singapore), Jan. 20, 2003 http://straitstimes.asia1.com.sg/ By Samuel Lee SINGAPORE … [Read more…]