BEIJING — Last month, as she waited for her husband and 7-year-old son at a McDonald’s in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong, Wu Shuoyan was approached by members of a Christian sect who were on an aggressive recruitment drive.
After Ms. Wu refused to give them her number, several members of the group beat and kicked her to death, an act of brutality captured by cellphone and widely shared on the Internet.
Although the Chinese public’s outrage initially focused on the many bystanders who failed to intervene, the national news media has sought to shift the indignation toward what the government calls “evil cults” — the roughly two dozen outlawed religious sects often demonized by the authorities as coercive and dangerous.
In the two weeks since the killing, state-run publications have produced a steady drumbeat of alarming articles detailing what they say are the predations of the Church of Almighty God, the group blamed for the McDonald’s attack. On Tuesday, the Xinhua news agency said the authorities had rounded up about 1,500 cult members, although it appears many of those were arrested as early as 2012.
“Religious cults recruit and control adherents by fabricating and spreading superstitions and heresies,” the Ministry of Public Security said in a statement carried by state-run news media last Wednesday.
Decades of blistering propaganda attacks against such groups have convinced much of the Chinese public that adherents of so-called cults deserve little sympathy. In the case of Falun Gong, the quasi-spiritual movement whose members once numbered in the millions and included high-ranking officials, even possessing a piece of literature for the group can lead to brutal treatment by the police and jail time.
Although their voices are muted by the censors, human rights advocates and some mainstream religious leaders in China say that the latest anticult campaign is misguided and that it frequently violates Chinese law.
Teng Biao, a defense lawyer who has represented Falun Gong members in the past, said the most recent roundups were politically motivated by the government’s deeply rooted fear of organized religion, especially groups it cannot control. “This is an effort to eradicate an entire group of believers, not just the ones who committed crimes,” he said.
The breadth of the newest campaign is hard to gauge. Xinhua’s report said that among those arrested, 59 had already been handed prison terms of up to four years for “using a cult to undermine enforcement of the law.”
In addition to adherents of the Church of Almighty God, the agency said, those arrested included members of another Christian group known as Disciples Sect. But other news accounts said that many of the 1,500 arrests took place in 2012, during a previous drive against Almighty God that began after its members frightened the public with warnings of a coming apocalypse.
Perhaps most alarming to the Chinese leadership is the group’s determination to slay the “Great Red Dragon,” a reference to the ruling Communist Party.
Despite its reputation for coercive proselytizing that critics describe as brainwashing, the group is not known for violence, and experts suggested that the McDonald’s killing was the work of a deranged individual.
During a jailhouse confession shown last week by the national broadcaster CCTV, the man described as the ringleader of the attack, Zhang Lidong, was emotionless and unrepentant. An unemployed medicine salesman, he said the victim had been a “monster” and an “evil spirit” who deserved to die. “We are not afraid of the law,” he said. “We have faith in God.”
Among the six people arrested at the scene were three of his children, including a 12-year-old boy.
Despite periodic efforts to rein in unorthodox Christian sects, the appeal of such faiths continues to endure. Some experts say Almighty God, also known as Eastern Lightning, may have up to a million members in China, many of them in rural areas. Founded in 1989 in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang by Zhao Weishan, the church is fixated on doomsday scenarios, and its members believe that God has returned to Earth as a Chinese woman. After the sect was banned in 1995, Mr. Zhao, a physics teacher, reportedly fled to the United States. His location is unknown, and he has not made any public statements about the killing.
Leaders of many mainstream Christian churches have condemned the sect for its teachings and heavy-handed recruitment methods. Wu Chi-wai, general secretary of the Hong Kong Church Renewal Movement, said he had heard stories from mainland Chinese pastors who said that Almighty God members sometimes kidnap or lure adherents from other churches by inviting them to religious seminars.
“It is not accepted by traditional churches, including the Protestant and Catholic churches, because it doesn’t let people accept Jesus Christ,” he said in a telephone interview on Wednesday from Hong Kong, where the group is allowed to proselytize. “They claim they have a woman who is more successful than Jesus Christ.”
Still, some Chinese religious leaders worry that campaigns against heterodox groups will spill over and affect congregations that are doctrinally mainstream but unsanctioned by the Communist Party, which seeks to manage all religious activity.
It is unclear whether those arrested in the latest sweep will have access to legal defenders. In the past, the handful of lawyers who have stepped forward to represent those accused of cult activity have faced harassment. One lawyer, Wang Quanzhang, was jailed for several days last year after a court in Jiangsu Province accused him of disrupting proceedings during the trial of a defendant who was a Falun Gong member.
Mr. Wang said the vilification and prosecution of so-called cults were deeply flawed because the decision to outlaw a particular group was subjective and lacked independent oversight.
“People shouldn’t be arrested for their beliefs,” Mr. Wang said. “But if there is proof, for example, that someone has indeed killed or injured others, then they should be prosecuted.”