On Wednesday, it was announced that authorities in Zhejiang province had arrested 18 individuals with connections to the cult of the Church of Almighty God.
Also known as Eastern Lightning, the Church of Almighty God isn’t necessarily your everyday, run-of-the-mill cult. In fact, it has a darker past than most. Established in the early 1990s by Zhao Weishan, who managed to convince his followers that his wife, Yang Xiangbang, was Jesus incarnate, the cult was banned in China in 1995 with Zhao and Yang both fleeing to the United States.
As just one of many religious factions which are currently outlawed in China, members of the Church of Almighty God have denounced the Communist Party, which they refer to as the “big red dragon.” The followers also believe that their membership in the Christian group will save them from a coming apocalypse.
The cult has been known to terrorize recruits into joining, forcing individuals to cut all ties with their previous lives in order to be fully indoctrinated. One man, who remained anonymous in the fear that he would face retribution from cult members, told the BBC that the Church of Almighty God steals average people away from their loved ones.
“The cult is anti-family, anti-human, anti-government… They throw away family relationships and encourage each other to do the same,” he said. “It takes people who are kind and makes them crazy and extreme.”
In 2014, the cult made headlines when some of its members beat a woman to death in a McDonald’s in the Shandong city of Zhaoyuan. The attack was provoked when the woman allegedly refused to give the group her phone number for recruitment purposes, leading them to believe she was possessed by an “evil spirit.” The vicious beating was recorded by security cameras and witnesses. Six people were arrested as the perpetrators of the crime. Two of the murderers, a father and his daughter, were sentenced to death as punishment.
The cult is still actively recruiting members. While its headquarters is in the US, there are contacts on the group’s website for sects in over 20 different countries. But the Chinese government has also been busy attempting to combat the cult’s growth within its own borders. Last August, authorities in Anhui detained nearly 40 of the cult’s members under accusations that they had been spreading pro-cult, anti-communist propaganda.
This week’s arrests were the result of a six-month investigation that also uncovered computers, books, recruitment handouts and handwritten notes, all of which were filled with cult-based material, Xinhua reports.
Dong Jiangfeng, one of the police officers in Changxing County who worked on the investigation, told reporters that most of the apprehended members were very vulnerable and showed signs of depression.
“Some of them are divorced and do not seem to know how to vent their suppressed emotions,” Dong said. “Some of their families have experienced bad accidents and caused them to become depressed.”
Investigators believe that the cult has financed its projects through donations from its members. According to Dong, members donated thousands of dollars of their own money and in return received promises of salvation.
“The cult’s ‘leaders’ imposed spiritual control over the members. They were told that as long as they gave donations, the Almighty God would keep their illness at bay,” Dong said.
So far, eight of the detained members have rejected their former beliefs and are prepared to be “re-educated” and reintegrated into society, according to Chinese state media.
By Emma Abrams
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