A bizarre murder in the eastern Chinese city of Zhaoyuan revealed the emergence of what officials are calling a dangerous doomsday cult.
In May, a 37-year-old mother named Wu Shuoyan was beaten to death at a local McDonald's by six members of a group calling themselves the Church of Almighty God, but also known as Eastern Lightning. Police quickly arrested Zhang Lidong, Zhang Fan, Lyu Yingchun, Zhang Hang, and Zhang Qiaolian along with a female minor whose name was not released.
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The group entered the restaurant on May 28 asking for customers' cellphone numbers. When Wu refused, the men attacked her. Horrified onlookers watched as Wu was kicked, stomped and struck with a mop handle. In video taken of the event, Zhang Lidong can be heard screaming, "Go to hell, demon! Never come back in the next reincarnation."
Linked to several kidnappings and extortion rackets, Eastern Lightning is one of 14 religious groups banned in China. Underground since 1995, the movement may have as many as one million adherents.
Zhaoyuan officials believe Wu's attackers were asking for phone numbers in order to proselytize. In an interview with state media soon after his arrest, Zhang Lidong repeats his assertation the woman was demonic.
"She was a demon," he said, showing no remorse. "She was an evil spirit, so I beat her relentlessly, and stomped on her head with my heel. She wouldn't let me have her phone number, and my daughter said she was no good. She told me to kill her."
Founded by Zhao Weishan in the 1990s, Eastern Lightening is a millennial syncretic Christian faith revolving around "Lightening Deng," a mysterious woman purported to be the reincarnation of Christ. A 2001 article in the Asian edition of Time reported Lightening Deng was Yang Xiangbin, Zhao's mistress. Yang reportedly suffered a mental breakdown upon failing to get into college.
Law officials allege the group, which they call a cult, tries to woo new members among China's Christian minority. If they are rejected, the victim is kidnapped and beaten into submission. In 2002, it was reported that a man was kidnapped, drugged, and then seduced by a female cult member for blackmail. Eastern Lightning strives to defeat "the great red dragon," code for the Chinese government.
Beijings repression of all Christian groups, even mainline Catholics and Protestants, is well know and a often-discussed subject among human rights lawyers. Analysts surmise Eastern Lightning draws its members from Christians discontented with such treatment. That Christianity has been forced underground makes splinter groups like Eastern Lightning harder to track.
Following the murder of Wu, Chinese law enforcement enacted a crackdown on known Eastern Lightning faithful. While some sentences are as long as four years, most followers are only detained for a week. Ex-cult members tell reporters they are genuinely frightened of the groups tactics and reach.
In response, Eastern Lightning leaders released a statement saying, "If a nation resists God, God will destroy the nation. God does not participate in human politics, but God controls the destiny of every nation and race."
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