David Yonggi Cho embezzlement scandal: Megachurch pastor defends his 'personal friend'

For David Yonggi Cho, who was last week sentenced to three years in prison for embezzlement, it's a time of bitter medicine.

But one man has gone against the tide of criticism against the South Korean pastor and written a defence of someone he calls his "personal friend".

The judge sentenced 78-year-old Cho to a three-year prison term suspended for five years relating to the embezzlement of over $12 million in funds belonging to Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul. 

Hee-jun Cho, his eldest son and former CEO of Kookmin Ilbo media company, was also sentenced last week to three years in prison for his participation in the embezzlement scheme.

The scheme involved church officials buying stocks in Hee-jun Cho's company at four times their market value.

Bob Rodgers, senior pastor of Evangel World Prayer Center in the US, published a compassionate testimony on Charisma magazine's website on Wednesday, titled "Setting the Record Straight on David Yonggi Cho".

In the article he suggests that Cho was more a victim of his son's crimes.  He describes Cho's eldest son as a "prodigal" who has been involved in sexual scandals, served time for investment scams, and "purposely" defrauded the church of $12m in a stock-related scheme 12 years ago. 

Although Cho signed off on the transaction, Rodgers claims the pastor did so trusting that it was above board. 

"Cho testified that he trusted his elders and son and didn't check and read the thousands of pages of paperwork, which was prepared for him to sign. Because Cho relied upon the direction of his choice elders and son, he signed the papers. He never received any monies from the transaction," Rodgers writes.

He then quotes the presiding judge in the case as affirming that although Cho "had the final say in the church, he never took the lead in any of the crimes, including tax evasion, committed on the suggestion of the accounting firm".

Rodgers does not address the specific allegations of Yoido church elders who claim that Cho senior received an $18m severance pay without their knowledge or consent, and did not repay millions of dollars borrowed from the church. 

However, he concludes his article by saying that Cho does not lead the lavish lifestyle many have him pegged down for. 

"Even though Cho established the world's largest church, with more than 1 million members, he lives a simple life in a 1,000-square-foot church apartment. Neither does he own a car. Cho has raised and given personally to the church more than $170 million," he said.

While Hee-jun Cho has been imprisoned, the elder Cho is on probation. He told his congregation that his sentencing had been the hardest day of his 50-year ministry.