Cho had been hospitalized since a collapse in June 2020, and died after suffering a brain hemorrhage in Seoul. He was 85 years old.
Cho founded the Yoido Full Gospel Church in 1958, which became one of the largest churches in the world, with over 480,000 attendees per week, according to the Leadership Network, an international organization of church leaders.
According to a church news release, Yoido has more than 500 church locations throughout South Korea, and has sent thousands of missionaries to various countries over the years. Cho himself has participated in religious rallies and movements in 71 countries, the release said.
The church said in its release that Cho, born in 1936, went through the Korean War, during which he served as an interpreter between his school principal and a US military commander.
In his second year of high school, he was diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis and said he would not live long. During this time he turned to Christianity, a decision he would later attribute to his “miraculous” recovery, according to the church.
Cho’s recovery prompted him to enroll at Full Gospel Theological Seminary, and he founded the Yoido Church after graduating. According to the church’s website, the church began after just five members gathered under a tent in Seoul.
South Korea has one of the world’s most vibrant Christian – especially Protestant – cultures, with conversion gaining momentum in the mid to late 20th century.
According to the news release, the minority Christian denomination, as well as the megachurch, grew rapidly in the years following the end of the Korean War—and Yoido became perhaps Korea’s most famous representative, with more than 700,000 members by 1993.
Those numbers skyrocketed as the church grew international, expanding to include a sprawling mountain retreat in South Korea’s Gyeonggi province and Cho, a Christian university established in California. The church also established an international branch under Cho’s presidency to connect with pastors and church leaders from 25 other countries, according to its website.
Within South Korea, Cho became a hugely influential figure; He founded a Christian daily newspaper, founded a humanitarian NGO, and wrote several books, the church said.
But that too was often the subject of controversy and scandal. According to Reuters, in 2014, he was found guilty of embezzling $14 million in church donations to buy shares owned by his son at four times their market value.
Cho’s wife died in February this year. The couple has left behind three sons.