Church on trial for funding pop star's career
Six leaders of a Singapore church stand trial over allegations they embezzled money to fund the career of US chart-topper Sun Ho.PT0M0S 620 349
Singapore's fast-growing Christian community has been shaken by the trial of six evangelical church leaders accused of embezzling more than $S50 million ($40.5 million) to fund the career of US-based pop star Sun Ho.
Ms Ho accompanied her accused husband Kong Hee to the Subordinate Courts, but left before prosecutors alleged funds of the City Harvest Church were diverted into "sham" investments.
Based on Pentecostal teachings the church's "prosperity gospel" encourages the material aspirations of mostly young members.
Ms Ho, whose beautiful voice and daring dance moves propelled her to the top of US charts, is not on trial and early this week 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 which has affiliates in 48 countries, including Australia.
Singaporean pop music singer Ho Yeow Sun, popularly known as Sun Ho, gets in a car as she leaves the Subordinate Courts in Singapore in file photo from June 2012. Photo: AP
Pastor Kong, who married Ms Ho 20 years ago, is charged with conspiracy to commit criminal breach of trust in a trial that began before a packed court on Wednesday.
Five other members of the church, three men and two women, also face charges that could carry prison sentences of up to 20 years.
None of the six are yet to say how they will plead and have not yet presented their defence.
The mega-church, one of Singapore's richest and biggest that regularly attracts up to 30,000 worshippers, was co-founded in 1989 by Pastor Kong and Ms Ho, in her early 40s, whose real name is Ho Yeow Sun.
Based on Pentecostal teachings the church's "prosperity gospel" encourages the material aspirations of mostly young members and uses music and drama for praise and worship. It often holds elaborate services resembling pop concerts.
Prosecutors said in an opening statement to the court they had evidence of a "deliberately planned" scheme by the accused to move millions of dollars earmarked for a church building fund to two companies as sham bond investments.
State media reported that $S24 million was allegedly channelled through the companies and another $S26 million was misappropriated to cover up the initial sum.
Lead prosecutor Mavis Chionh said it was "immaterial" whether the accused thought the promotion of Ms Ho's music career would further the broader objectives of the church.
Singapore authorities made clear the charges filed last July were against individuals and the church remained free to continue its services and other activities.
Last weekend Pastor Kong rallied his congregation, telling them that by next year "everything should be over."
"And yes, I do maintain my integrity," he said as worshippers roared their approval.
Pastor Kong was given a standing ovation as he went on stage to deliver his sermon.
More than 50 church members queued overnight for a seat in court to show support for the accused.
Church members have told journalists they trust Pastor Kong to spend their money in any way he saw fit.
Ms Ho, a constant presence beside her husband in the church's early days, resigned her duties in 2003 and started singing to broaden the church's appeal, according to Singapore's media.
Her career took off as she remained involved in fund raising for the church and charity work to help build schools in China.
She released several singles in the US including One With You and Without Love which topped the US Billboard Dance Chart and the UK Music Week Club Chart for weeks in 2007.
Her home is a mansion in Hollywood Hills, California.
The City Harvest Church Sydney was opened in 2005 by John Yun Suk Lee, a graduate of Melbourne University who earlier worked for the church in Singapore, the church's website says. It holds services in North Sydney.
The trial is expected to be adjourned part heard on May 23 and verdicts are not expected until next year.