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.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday June 27, 2012.
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