Like most Chinese citizens, Zhang Kai, a Beijing lawyer, was furious at the slaughter of an innocent woman, beaten to death by six suspected cult members on May 28 at a McDonald's in Zhaoyuan, East China's Shandong Province.
But he said he feels the response has also been alarming.
Zhang has been raising the alarm about a blanket crackdown by the authorities on the cult members. A number of cities and provinces have been launching campaigns to suppress the cult, known as Quannengshen or Almighty God, and hundreds of its followers have been arrested and jailed, with some sentenced to years of imprisonment.
"The violence was shocking. But I am also concerned that some of the ordinary believers who might have done nothing to jeopardize the society might also be implicated. What they did was just studying the doctrine at home, but for this, they might have been sentenced to years of imprisonment," said Zhang, who is currently in the US for further study.
According to Chinese criminal law, anyone who organizes or uses the cult to violate law would be sentenced to three to seven years of imprisonment. In severe cases they can be sentenced to over seven years' imprisonment.
Zhang then wrote an article on his Sina Weibo account, which said that "the public has the right to trust in a sect with a false doctrine … and a follower should shoulder responsibility for violating the law, like other citizens, but should not be blamed for believing in a sect that has been defined as a 'cult' by government."
As a criminal lawyer and Christian, Zhang further noted, the decision on whether or not the sect is a cult should be left to the church, rather than the government.
Zhang's article went viral on the Internet and immediately aroused a broad discussion among religious groups, experts and lawyers on how to defend people's freedom of faith and authorities' proper governance of sects to maintain peaceful social order. It also triggered a heated debate on how to define and apply rules to cults using a legal basis.
"The problem is, the boundary is blurred," Jin Wei, director of the Office of Religious Issues at the Party School of the CPC Central Committee, told the Global Times.
Criminal law indicates that people who jeopardize society by trusting in a cult can face a criminal punishment.
"However, who could define whether the sect is a cult or not, the government or the church?" Jin said.
There has been long-running dispute over the separation of religion and State, and which side should exercise which powers.
"Looking back, arguments over the definition of 'heresy' among different religious groups have never stopped. New religions were always recognized as "cults" when they first came to the world, with their believers suppressed, tortured and slaughtered by local authorities and the dominant religious powers," Xu Ping, a Beijing lawyer, wrote in a Sina Weibo article.
As religious beliefs belong to the scope of spiritual needs, the government should not intervene, Xu noted.
Jin Wei disagreed. "Considering China's State system, it is impossible and unnecessary for the central government to let social organizations or religious groups develop freely," Jin told the Global Times.
Despite the central government's endeavors to diversify social organs and develop different social organization, China still imposes comparative strict supervision over religious groups that are separate from government-sanctioned churches.
The public remains divided over whether or not the government should harshly crack down on the cults.
After Zhaoyuan violence, the Chinese government listed 14 illegal cults, including Almighty God.
It was the first time the authorities had publicized their illegal status in such a manner.
Meanwhile, authorities in different cities and provinces have started to suppress the Almighty God cult by arresting its members and throwing them into jail. In Ningxia, for instance, over 1,300 suspected members have been arrested since 2012, according to local media.
"It is understandable, but in the massive crackdown on cults, the authorities should strictly differentiate between the ringleaders, the key members and participants, and treat them differently," said Liu Weidong, a Beijing lawyer.
The ringleaders and key members could be punished by law, but for participants who have been trapped, what they need is counseling and help, Liu said.
In the vast rural areas of Henan Province, middle-aged farmers complained they had no choice but to believe in the Almighty God cult because they lacked hope and had no spiritual ballast, which left loopholes for the cults who preached a more positive future for their families.
"Such a campaign-like crackdown that emphasizes punishments might fail to help followers who are bound by these beliefs," Liu said.
Some religious groups supported the publicizing of the list and the crackdown on the cults, as it helped boost the development of other religions.
The Christian Times, a Chinese mainland online Christian community, cited an anonymous independent Christian expert on religious issues as saying the violence and the list would have significant influence on the development of Christianity in China.
"The authorities have clearly differentiated Almighty God from Christianity, which could help the public to understand more about the Christianity and the illegal cult," the independent expert said, according to the Christian Times.
"The crackdown could help eliminate two most negative influences that sometimes take root within Christianity, the theology of 'success' as well as heresies, both of which sometimes mingle like a pyramid scheme of trickery," a Beijing pastor of a home church, surnamed Li, told the Global Times.
Cult organizations developed gradually in China after the reform and opening-up period. In the 1980s, most of the cult organizations acted and expanded in remote areas and they began to spread into cities and provinces after the 1990s.
Now, the cult organization has started to pursue global influence and foreign links after its ringleaders fled China and resided in foreign countries. According to media reports, the US, with comparatively loose religious policies, has become an asylum for cults from all over the world.
Actually, the Chinese government's tough stance on cults, which aims to reduce their influence, has long been criticized by some religious experts. Critics say that after the ringleaders flee overseas, they continue make noises and be used by some forces as a pretext to attack China.
Experts are divided over whether the government should draft legislation to combat cults.
China's criminal law defines cults as "illegal social organizations that use religions, qigong or other organizations as cover, to deify ringleaders, create and spread superstitions and heresies to poison, bewitch and control people and jeopardize the public."
Anyone who organizes or uses the cult to violate the law can be sentenced to a fixed-term of imprisonment, according to the criminal law.
Currently, China's handling of cult issues mainly depends on sporadic clauses in the criminal law and judicial interpretations by the Supreme People's court, but there are evident flaws and various laws lack a cohesive framework binding them together.
"China needs a counter-cult law that clearly draws the boundary of what sects can do and can't do, to regulate their behavior, and make sure they impose no harm on society," Jin Wei said.
"The government should draw strict lines over the dos and don'ts. As long as they have violated the law, they would be punished by law. If not, they can operate under the government's supervision."
Jin said China should learn from France's pluralistic social values to control the spread of cults and constraint their power, instead of uprooting them.
In 1995, France issued a report on sects and defined 173 sects as "heretical," which included 500,000 followers.
In 1998, the government set up a special committee to supervise cult activities.
In May 2002, a "counter-cult" law came out. According to the law, any cult that caused physical or mental damages to people would be revoked by the Supreme Court. The law also indicated restrictions on the publicity activities of cults and measures to supervise them.
"Based on the current law and its interpretations, it is impractical to effectively control the development of the cults, especially when they cause no severe harm to people's lives or property," Yu Yunbin, a lawyer from the Beijing Youbin Minglu law firm, told the Global Times.
Yu said law enforcement organs should enhance their capability of law enforcement under the current legal framework
Currently, law enforcement organs have broadly encountered difficulties on how to deal with the cult and its members if they didn't harm society, because of lacking legal support, Yu said.
In fact, finding ways to deal with cult issues has become a thorny problem in many countries.
In Western countries, they tend to tolerate cults and crack down on them when they cause severe hazards to society, according to current laws and regulations.
In the US, authorities abandoned the use of the term "cult" for legal reasons, and renamed unfamiliar sects "new religions."
"Despite the fact these new religions might be disputed, they can be tolerated by the US government as long as they don't violate the current law," Tao Duanfang said.
For instance, the controversial Scientology sect created in 1952 by science fiction author Ron Hubbard, which offered expensive "faith services" and psychiatric therapy, for its believers, has developed significantly in the Western world, including the US, England and Australia. Despite the controversy, the sect has developed freely and actively.
"In the US, they never defined the sect as a cult as a legal basis to suppress Scientology. But instead, those countries have cracked down on the sect by using specific crimes such as "illegal use of medical apparatus and instruments" and "tax evasion" when the sect violated the law," Tao said.
The Biblical passage "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and render unto God the things that are God's" is often used to distinguish between secular and religious matters and how they should remain distinct, and people should be punished according to their crimes not their beliefs, Zhang wrote in an article.