Chinese authorities have arrested 18 alleged members of a banned radical Christian cult in the country’s eastern province of Zhejiang.
The police confiscated laptops and books used to propagate information about the Church of the Almighty God, also known as “Eastern Lightning,” the state-run Chinese publication Xinhua reported Wednesday.
The cult, which was established in the early 1990s, believes that Jesus was resurrected as a Chinese woman, Yang Xiangbin, who also happens to be married to its founder, a former physics teacher named Zhao Weishan. Chinese authorities believe the couple fled to the U.S. in 2000 and have established a cult chapter there.
Beijing has previously called the group an “evil cult,” and it has been linked to extortions, kidnappings, beatings and murders. In 2014, the Church of the Almighty God made international headlines after a video uploaded to YouTube showed the savage killing of a woman. The victim was beaten to death in a McDonald’s restaurant because she had refused to lend her phone to a group of cult members seeking new recruits.
Five adult cult members were convicted for the murder. Two of them, a man and his daughter, were executed in 2015, as the BBC reported at the time. The man, Zhang Lidong, had previously told the British broadcaster that he believed the woman was a demon and “we had to destroy her”.
Authorities have not, however, managed to end the existence of the cult, and this week’s arrests revealed further evidence of its dubious practices and extortion techniques.
The Chinese police said that the more a member contributed financially to the Church of the Almighty God, the further he or she can advance in its hierarchy.
“Every member was willing to donate their money, and the amounts ranged from 10,000 yuan ($1,481) to tens of thousands of yuan,” police officer Dong Jianfeng said, quoted in Xinhua. He added that most of the people arrested were in a distressed mental state, showing signs of depression.
“They were told that as long as they gave donations, the Almighty God would keep their illness at bay,” Dong said.
The cult’s website is available in 12 languages and advertises a “gospel hotline” in 21 countries, as well as China’s special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau.
At the time of the McDonald’s murder, members of the cult operating the English-language version of its website told CNN that the Chinese Communist Party, which the cult strongly opposes, blamed the murder on the Church of Almighty God as part of their persecution strategy. The cult has published several well-produced short films portraying the Chinese authorities imprisoning and torturing Christians.
Religious freedom is limited in China, where only certain groups receive state permission to hold worship services. Yet other Chinese religious groups have long shunned the cult for its violent methods.
In a 2012 statement, ChinaAid, an international Christian human rights organization working to promote religious freedom and the rule of law in China, said, “Almost all of China’s house churches support the efforts of local authorities to crack down, in accordance with the law, on Eastern Lightning, which calls itself a Christian group but has long used violence to harm and persecute house churches, as well as endangering social order.”