Beijing cracks down on doomsday cult

China Daily/December 22, 2012

They claim the end of the world is near and that they are gearing up to slay the "Great Red Dragon" - their codename for the Chinese Communist Party.

"Doomsday", however, did not come yesterday as prophesied by the Church of Almighty God, one of the most active illegal cults in China.

Instead, the cult is now being hunted by the "dragon", which has arrested at least 1,300 of its members for spreading doomsday rumours and disrupting social order.

The arrests were made across China, especially in poorer provinces like Qinghai in the north-west and Guizhou in the south-west, which each saw at least 300 people being nabbed. Beijing had 17 cases.

The Chinese media has also launched a blitzkrieg against the group. "The government has cracked down on them numerous times over the years, but the current one seems to be a concerted attack," Paul Hattaway told The Straits Times. The director of Christian group Asia Harvest has written articles to expose the cult.

Like quasi-religious qigong group Falungong, which was subjected to a crackdown in the 1990s, the Almighty God cult seems well organised with a wide reach.

Also known as Eastern Lightning, the group claims on its website to have a presence throughout China except in Tibet and boasts of millions of followers.

It was started in 1989 by Zhao Weishan - now exiled in the United States - in his native Heilongjiang province but later took root in populous and largely rural Henan, home of the Shaolin Temple, in central China. Zhao, 61, used to belong to a Christian sect called The Shouters but left in 1989 to set up the Church of the Everlasting Fountain, which later became the present-day Church of Almighty God (quan neng shen).

The church was fronted by a peasant woman from Henan who it claimed was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ.

Zhao pulled the strings behind the scenes.

The church also claimed that non-believers would be struck by lightning.

Outlawed since 1995, the group is one of at least 20 that are classified as cults by Beijing. Others include The Established King (bei li wang) and The Disciples (men tu hui).

The authorities are wary of popular religious groups, given how these have been linked to subversion historically, like the White Lotus Sect dating to the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), the Taiping rebels (1851-1864) and the Boxers (1898-1901) of the Qing dynasty.

The Almighty God cult is infamous in China's Christian circles for infiltrating other churches and poaching their members through tricks such as blackmail and using women and money as bait.

They have allegedly even kidnapped church leaders and maimed members who wanted out of the cult, noted Hattaway.

He said he has met someone who was partially crippled by the cult when she tried to leave.

"I believe the exposure from our articles and others back then caused the EL (Eastern Lightning) to change its strategy, and since then it hasn't resorted to physical mutilation and kidnapping so much," he added.

But the cult has probably continued to grow in numbers over the years by being more subtle, he said.

That is until recent weeks when it started spreading panic about doomsday and also criticism of the Communist Party.

Pastor Jonathan Li of the Beijing International Christian Fellowship told The Straits Times that some in his congregation have had family members who were tricked into joining the cult.

"Usually, most are from the villages and have low levels of education," he added.

Observers say the appeal of groups like Falungong and Almighty God stems from problems like widening inequality, rising living costs and a spiritual void.

Those at the lower strata of society are especially vulnerable as they feel hopeless in the face of these growing pressures, said religion researcher Yan Kejia.

"What we have to do is to help them better their lives," said Professor Yan of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

Pastor Li, while supporting the government's reining in of the Church of Almighty God, believes a better way of preventing the rise of cults is to support proper churches instead.

"Only by supporting and developing orthodox churches can (we) effectively and truly curb cult forces," he said.

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