BEIJING - It’s been more than a year since Zhou Zewen, a 45-year-old restaurateur from China’s south-western municipality of Chongqing, came home to find a note from his daughter lying on her bed.
“Don’t worry about me and don’t come looking for me,” she wrote.
The 22-year-old beautician did not say where or why she had gone but Mr Zhou knew she had run away to be with The Church of Almighty God, a heterodox Christian organisation which the Chinese government classifies as an “evil cult”.
Mr Zhou and his wife put up posters, appealed for information online and reported her disappearance to the police, but all to no avail, she appears to have vanished.
Now as the Chinese government launches a crackdown on the organisation, after a chilling murder, Mr Zhou is both hopeful his daughter may be returned to him and fearful that it might push the group to more extreme actions.
“They have huge power over their followers. They teach that all of society is corrupted and only they can save you,” he said.
The cult, which is also known as Eastern Lightning, was founded in the early nineties by a physics teacher called Zhao Weishan from the poor central province of Henan.
It takes mainstream Christian beliefs as its base but claims that the second coming of the messiah has already happened with Jesus returning to earth in the form of a Chinese woman named Yang Xiangbin.
The organisation, which is now run out of the US where Mr Zhao and Ms Yang have asylum, also calls for the destruction of China’s ruling Communist party, which it refers to as the “great red dragon”.
Needless to say, such talk worries China’s leaders but little was being done to curb the growth of the organisation until six of its members bludgeoned to death a 37-year-old woman in a McDonald’s while out on a recruitment drive in the eastern province of Shandong in May.
The gang’s leader Zhang Lidong apparently ordered the attack on Wu Shuoyan, a mother of one, when she refused to hand over her telephone number.
The act was caught on other customers’ mobile phones and CCTV cameras, and later Zhang told Chinese state television: “I beat her with all my might and stamped on her too. She was a demon. We had to destroy her.”
Zhang and four of his alleged accomplices are awaiting a verdict after their one-day trial ended on Thursday.
The sixth, a minor, will be dealt with separately, the authorities say.
Several hundred members of the church have also been arrested since the murder but if the organisation’s boasts of more than a million members in China are even partially true, that is a drop in the ocean.
The Online Anti-Almighty God Association, an internet support forum set up by a former believer, has more than 30,000 members, all people like Mr Zhou looking to extract family members, often females, from the clutches of the organisation.
Many say their relative became abusive to them after they joined the cult and some have even seen parents and spouses sell their homes to make financial contributions to the organisation.
He does not apportion blame, but some Chinese, especially those in the south, speak angrily about the cults and the role the poor northern provinces have played in incubating them.
“Major threats to China be it cults or outside invaders, always comes from north,” wrote one irritated southerner on China’s popular micro-blogging website shortly after Ms Wu was killed.
Given that the Taiping rebellion of the mid-1800s – also a heterodox Christian movement – started in the southern province of Guangxi such views aren’t strictly accurate, but it is true that most of the organisations currently classified as cults in China began in the north or outside the mainland.
Interestingly the majority are also Christian, at least by their own description.
The growth of mainstream Christianity in China may even have aided the rise of groups such as Church of Almighty God, some experts say.
The organisation has been known to target those who have already converted to the Christian faith, specifically, those who worship in house churches which are not part of the government-sanctioned network of religious establishments.
“Many in China are finding neoliberalism and consumerism as unfulfilling as others across the globe; the individualism of Christianity arguably makes it a better fit with capitalist neoliberalism than traditional Confucian and Buddhist world views,” said Suzanne Newcombe, an expert on new religious movements at the London School of Economics.
Daniel Bays, author of A New History of Christianity in China said those who make the transitions from practising the mainstream form of the religion to a heterodox one may be motivated by a desire for tangible “results”.
“Chinese more than most tend to be attracted to the idea of efficacy in religion and these cults are promising to solve people’s problems.”
Mr Zhou’s daughter joined the Church of Almighty God in late 2012, suggesting she may have got caught up in the hysteria surrounding the Mayan predication that the world would end on December 21 of that year.
Then the police had powers to detain cult members and send them, without trial, to re-education camps.
The world applauded when China abolished these camps this year but Mr Zhou finds himself hankering after them.
“Now that the labour camp system is abolished, the police say they can’t do anything other than hold her for a few days and let her go. We need more time than that to change how she thinks.”
“Once my mother joined the cult, she was changed,” said Zheng Yiwen, 32, a security guard from the town of Changle.
“She thinks whoever tries to stop her is a monster or devil and she calls us evil and beats us.”
Originally, the church was a rural phenomenon, but as millions of Chinese relocated to the cities over the past two decades, it has gained a foothold amongst the country’s urban population too.
Mr Zheng said he first heard of the cult when big lace factories opened up in his town and migrant workers from China’s less developed province came to work in them.
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