The long-awaited trial of Singapore's popular pastor, Kong Hee of City Harvest Church, began on Wednesday, with a prosecutor stating that the church leader conspired with five others to misuse $41 million in church funds to help promote the career of his pop-star wife, Ho Yeow Sun.
"The evidence will show that the offenses were part of a deliberately planned, meticulously coordinated and carefully executed scheme," said prosecutor Mavis Chionh, according to Bloomberg.com.
Many from the City Harvest congregation queued up outside the Singapore court house at the start of the trial, the Associated Press reported, showing their support for the troubled pastor. The church and its affiliates are said to have a membership of more than 30,000, making it one of the biggest and richest worship groups in the region.
Although Ho herself is not on trial, she apparently turned up on Wednesday to support her husband, who is being charged with conspiracy to commit criminal breach of trust. The other five members of City Harvest, who are facing prison terms from 10 to 20 years if convicted, include Pastor Tan Ye Peng, members Chew Eng Han and Lam Leng Hung, and accountants Serina Wee Gek Yin and Sharon Tan Shao Yuen. All have pleaded not guilty.
Kong is arguing that he did not misuse the money, and that his wife's pop career could be used as a tool of evangelism that could spread the Word of God. The prosecution insisted, however, that the secular music Ho performs, including the music video "China Wine" with rapper Wyclef Jean in 2007, is far from godly music and appeals to people "who would never choose to step foot into a church to listen to a preacher."
Investigations by the Commercial Affairs Department and Commissioner of Charities found that at least $18 million in funds had been misused and had helped finance the music career of the pastor's wife.
Since a review found that the singer had not personally contributed to the mismanagement of church money, she was reinstated on Monday as executive director of City Harvest Church by the Commissioner of Charities.
"I am very thankful to Jesus that I can resume my executive duties at such a crucial time for City Harvest Church. I am truly glad that I have been fully vindicated. God's grace abounds and His faithfulness truly never ends! I want to thank the members of CHC for always standing with our church and our leaders. Your unceasing prayers are moving mountains and are so important to us in the days to come," Ho wrote after the decision.
Kong, 48, founded City Harvest Church in 1989 as a nonprofit nondenominational evangelical church. Singapore's Commercial Affairs Department announced in 2012 that it had conducted a two-year inquiry into allegations that Kong and other church members had used church funds to support Ho's career. Despite the Commissioner of Charities requesting that the accused voluntarily leave their positions until the case is concluded, Kong has insisted that he will remain as pastor.
Earlier in May, before the start of the trial, COC again tried to force Kong to step down from City Harvest, but the pastor was granted an extension and the suspension has been delayed.
"On behalf of the CHC Board, I also want to thank each and every one of you for your steadfast prayers and positive confessions, and for your faith in God," Executive Pastor of City Harvest the Rev. Aries Zulkarnain said in a statement.
"As the trial begins this Wednesday, I ask you to continue praying for the six and their families, and for our church to stand strong at this time, and be united."