Sunday August 18, 1996
Niall Fraser investigates the world of Leung Yat-wah, who calls the IMF the anti-Christ and offers bleach as medicine.
The 1,200-strong congregation rises in unison, swaying to the pounding beat of what can only be described as Canton-rock gospel. A warm-up man moves out from behind a gaudy purple podium and immediately the crown erupts in an all-clapping, all-singing frenzy.
Giant screens on either side of the stage flash up words in Chinese and English beside the now-animated figure leading the noisy chorus.
Everyone knows the words but in case there are doubters, each verse is sung several times to drive the message home. For those not fortunate enough to sample this Canto-religious experience, the show is also captured on video by uniformed followers.
As the cameras roll, the assembled masses belt out hymn after synthesized hymn:
?The Lord?s victory is guaranteed,
?Where are his enemies?
?See them flee to the mountain tops,
?For he has defeated the grave.?
Its the controversial Church of Zion at prayer at the Elizabeth Centre, Yim Po Fong Street, Mongkok, on a wet and windy Sunday night.
Non-believers might raise an eyebrow at the fervour, but few would think the congregation was very different from the various evangelical or charismatic churches in the territory.
But that was before the revelations emerged that Church of Zion and it leader Leung Yat-wah were promoting ingesting of hydrogen peroxide as a miracle cure, earning the group instant cult status.
In the gospel according to Zion, drinking hydrogen peroxide can treat a range of ailments ranging from heart disease to AIDS. The bizarre claims have met a mixture of disbelief and concern by doctors, legislators and other clerics.
These worries have since prompted the Department of Health to approach the Commissioner of Police, Eddie Hui Kion, for a full investigation into the church and its chemical teachings.
Detectives from the New Territories North Regional Crime Unit are keeping details of their probe under wraps, but a full report is expected to be in the hands of the Legal Department within weeks.
Despise the Reverend Leung’s warning to followers that journalists are the messengers of Satan and a ban on photography during Sunday services, the South China Morning Post attended one such gathering to learn more about his teachings.
The Church of Zion’s belief in the medical value of a chemical normally associated with disinfectants and bleached blondes is only the tip of an extreme theological iceberg.
This encompasses not just an evangelical vision of the second coming of the Lord but a pseudo-political conspiracy theory involving Western capital and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
According to Leung, the IMF is the anti-Christ, on an evil crusade to control the world through what amounts to loan-shark business of truly Biblical proportions.
As the hymn singing subsides in the grandstand at Elizabeth Centre, Leung launches into an hour-and-a-half tirade against Western-controlled big business, the IMF and the wealthy Rothschild family.
Western multinational companies are the IMF’s co-conspirators, he says, and it’s their desire for profits and world domination that is behind the recent outcry over hydrogen peroxide.
His theory, expounded with the help of magnified newspaper clippings beamed on to screens on both sides of the stage is that the devil is gobbling up nation states with the help of the ?Freemason-dominated? IMF.
?Slowly but surely national governments are being marked with the number of the beast. The mark is money, money loaned to them by the International Monetary Fund.? Leung tells the gathering.
?It?s all part of a plan to control the world by privatisation. They say it means greater efficiency, but the Freemasons who control the petroleum and medical business want one thing: governments and countries under their spell.?
The Reverend is clear where the solution lies – the second coming of the Lord and the choice of China as ?as weapon for good.?
?Western science and business is blind and only interested in profit, but in China justice and truth are considered.
?We know that God will take care of China. China will compete with Europe and America in the coming years. Now it is closed, but God will make great change in China, intones Leung.
“He has chosen China as a weapon for good. The Lord will appear soon.?
The Church of Zion leader has appeared on local television, but according to long-serving followers, he now harbours a deep mistrust of the media.
Despite his commanding and expansive stage persona, Leung refused numerous requests by the Post for an interview. He has also declined to write in defense of his theories. At the close of his Mongkok sermon, he told everyone present to take tickets for the next service in a move to restrict entry to ?unwanted journalists.?
But a probe into Leung?s background gave clues to his religious fervour.
According to a friend and colleague in Vancouver, Canada, the charismatic leader experienced a profound conversion after undergoing a ?miracle? recovery from a deadly blood disorder.
Edward Chu, director of Zion Evangelistic Chinese Church, as off-shot organisation which Leung was instrumental in setting up in Canada last year, says the preacher was born and raised in Hong Kong. In 1980, his parents sent him to Canada to study business.
There, Leung joined the mainstream Church of Zion in Vancouver, the mother institution of his church, but returned to the territory about 11 years ago because he thought he was dying.
Chu, who knows Leung as Leaves, the English name he used in Canada, says the preacher even called off his engagement to his fianc嶪. Priscilla, who is now his wife.
However, reading a booklet by American evangelist Kenneth E. Hagin on God?s healing powers prompted Leung to return to Hong Kong where he experienced and amazing recovery.
Chu?s claim is backed by Li Pak-hon, an official of the Church of Zion in Hong Kong. ?He was told he was dying and returned to Hong Kong around 1984, but the Lord saved him. Yes, it was a miracle and a source of strength for his beliefs.?
That was when Leung began to develop the church in Hong Kong: ?He felt he had been blessed by God and used that energy to build the church; he knows the pastor of a sizable congregation,? said Chu.
According to Vancouver-based Chu, who hopes to be ordained soon as a minister in the Zion Evangelistic Christian Church, Leung?s all-consuming religious passion initially worried his parents who now live in Richmond, near Vancouver.
But they were eventually persuaded to support him and are now members of the 40-member Zion off-shoot church in Richmond.
However, the original Church of Zion in Vancouver was not as tolerant and broke off links with Leung in 1991. (Since the hydrogen peroxide controversy erupted, the mother church has categorically rejected any use of the chemical for medical treatment and has suggested someone talk to Leung to defuse what senior pastor Gideon Chiu describes as a ?potentially dangerous? situation.)
Having found his calling, Leung involved himself in several churches in Hong Kong, including the Revival Christian Church, but his attempts were largely unsuccessful. Indeed, he was thrown out of the Hong Kong Truth Church in 1987 for what it described as ?heretical interpretations of the Bible.?
But it seems the Reverend was not to be denied, and since then has managed to attract a significant flock.
Members of the organisation are split into cells, each with about 50 members who meet once a week to discuss the gospel. There are between 30 and 40 cells in the territory.
These are headed by cell group leaders, who appear at Sunday services dressed in the ?church uniform? of smart shirt and tie, yellow jacket, black trousers and shoes, to direct the congregation. New members are introduced to the cells by other followers.
?We are not a mystery organisation, we are simply misunderstood by the media,? insists Li, the Mongkok cell group leader, who has been involved with the Church of Zion for six years. ?They have picked out one aspect of our teaching and failed to put it in the context of the church?s overall beliefs.?
But the church?s practice of avoiding contact with mainstream churches and other secretive ways only add to the mystery.
Its finances, for example, are a closely guarded secret. Officials will only say they operate a ?tithe? system through which followers donate part of their income in line with the teachings of the Bible.
?We have no accountants and we don?t pass round a plate. Member can give what they want, in line with religious teachings. Mr. Leung does not hoard money, he puts it all back into the church.? The church had no private or business sources of income, Li added.
The Reverend Ma Kwong-tung, a religious counsellor with the Hong Kong Christian Short-Term Missions Training Centre believes Leung is trying to control his members by encouraging them to shun the outside world and could be a dangerous influence on younger members.
?They are taught that the church?s leader has greater authority than any other voice in society and even the Bible. It makes followers believe that society?s opposition to the church?s teachings is a form of persecution,? he argued.
Mary Yuen, spokesman for the Justice and Peace Commission of the Hong Kong Catholic Council, issued a plea to Leung to enter into dialogue with the territory?s mainstream churches.
?People from different churches have made approaches to Mr. Leung to sit down and talk but he has turned them all down.
?It would be better and fairer for him if we could hear exactly what his message is. There are different ways of interpreting the Bible and he is free to have his interpretation.?
Most of Leung?s followers attending the Sunday night gathering were Chinese, clearly attracted by his up-heat message and the global simplicity of his theory.
The majority were women in their 20?s and 30?s, the rest being men of similar age and a smattering of elderly and children. Mature, besuited business-types mingled with bespectacled teenage girls.
But all were joined in prayer, eyes closed with their heads and hands turned heavenwards. They were clearly looking for something and Leung looks to be giving it.
But before any of his eager band of followers could thank him for his powerful sermon, Leung quickly exited, guarded by a five-man posse of yellow-jacketed church officials.
The Reverend had nothing more to say that night. As the pounding music struck up again, his invigorated followers trooped out into a torrential downpour to spend their Hong Kong dollars, no doubt marked with the number of the beast.
There are three pictures on the full page report:
A picture of women with hands raised in fervent worship with the caption, ?Praise the Lord: behind the charisma of non-mainstream churches there may be teachings that are a cause for concern.?
A Picture of Leung and next to it a picture of Glad Tidings in Vancouver with the Chinese characters for ?Church of Zion? in which the Pastor Gideon Chiu is standing outside. Caption is ?Split: Leung Yat-wah, left, leader of the Church of Zion, and Gideon Chiu, senior pastor of the original Church of Zion which rejects using hydrogen peroxide as a medicine.?
Poison cult rises in Hong Kong
From The Sunday Times, London, 4 August 1996
Worried officials in Hong Kong are trying to crack down on a bizarre local cult leader who has convinced his followers to swallow large quantities of hydrogen peroxide in the belief that it will provide a “new age" cure for their illnesses, writes Michael Sheridan.
They fear people will die unless measures are taken to stop the Rev. Leung Yat Wah, pastor of the Church of Zion, an evangelical group in the New Territories in the north of the colony.
An elderly Church of Zion member suffering from an intestinal ulcer was admitted to hospital after taking 27 drops of the chemical. He refused the necessary surgery and discharged himself.
Doctors are now concerned after news that the cult took delivery of a substantial shipment of hydrogen peroxide from Canada last month.
Consumed in excess, hydrogen peroxide can generate oxygen bubbles in the body, leading to respiratory seizures and heart attacks. But the cult reassures its followers that symptoms such as skin rashes, vomiting, dizziness and diarrhea are simply the side effects of what it describes as a “natural healing process."
Leung and his followers claimed last week that hydrogen peroxide, normally used as an antiseptic or disinfectant, can cure a range of diseases including Aids and cancer. “As a preacher I have a duty to speak the truth", Leung said, alleging that orthodox western doctors and multinational drug companies were conspiring to suppress news of the chemical?s effect. Leung sells small bottles of hydrogen peroxide to his congregation for about ?2.70 each.
One devoted woman follower, Hosanna Law Chor-Hing, a 28-year-old primary teacher, told reporters she had been cured of a heart complaint after consuming 75 drops of hydrogen peroxide a day for three weeks. She went on to say that she would happily inform her pupils about the use of the chemical." Why should they be stopped from using something that is good for them." She said.
Law also admitted that in common with many of the cult?s followers she handed 10% of her monthly salary to the pastor, whose charismatic sermons have drawn a regular crowd of 2,000 worshippers to his nondescript premises.
Leung was ordained a minister in 1991 by the Church of Zion in Vancouver, Canada. Last year he broke away to form his own sect and is no longer recognised by its leaders as a pastor.