Pastor David Yonggi Cho convicted of embezzling $12m

The pastor of the largest Pentecostal church in the world has been sentenced to three years in prison for embezzling $12 million in church funds.

David Yonggi Cho, founder of the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, South Korea, had instructed church officials back in 2002 to buy stocks owned by his eldest son, Cho Hee-jun, at four times the market value. 

In 2011, church elders accused him of embezzling $20 million and again last November, some 30 church elders took their complaints about Cho's corruption to the press, accusing him and his family of stealing millions in church money over the last two decades. 

At the press conference, the elders revealed the findings of an internal investigation into Cho's financial dealings, including millions of dollars in church money that was borrowed by Cho and never returned.

They also reported a severence payment of around $18 million Cho received when he stepped down as head pastor in 2008 - a payment they say was made without the prior consent of the church and its decision-making bodies, The Hanyoreah news site reports.

At the time, former church elder Ha Song-ok said he had urged Cho many times to abandon his unethical practices.

"A sect leader might violate the commandments and do as he wishes, but a pastor cannot do that," he said.  "Over the past 14 years, I have met with Rev Cho many times to try to persuade him to repent and return to being a great pastor, but the corruption has continued.  That's why I had no choice but to disclose it to the outside world."

Cho was sentenced on Thursday and must pay back $4.6 million to the church.  Yonhap News Agency reports that he was also convicted of evading taxes to the sum of $3.2 million. 

He reportedly told his congregation that through his conviction he had learned that "an individual shouldn't possess anything".

"Besides health, status, fame, authority, money... these are all matters that are outside the body and unworthy of any pursuit," he said.

Yoido Full Gospel Church is affiliated to the Assemblies of God and has more than a million members.

In a sermon on Sunday, The Gospel Herald reports that Cho told the congregation that his conviction was the hardest day of his 50-year ministry.

"God forbid, if God calls me back today, I will still be able to go to the Kingdom of God," he was quoted by the website as saying.

Cho Hee-jun was sentenced to three years in prison for colluding in his father's scheme.