The Chinese government will prosecute five members of what it calls a “dangerous cult” for the murder of a woman at a McDonald’s in Zhaoyuan, Shandong Province, Xinhua reported Saturday. The prosecution comes amid a broader crackdown on the organization that has so far landed hundreds of its adherents in prison. The five defendants belonging to the group called the Eastern Lightning or Almighty God were filmed beating Wu Shuoyan, 37, a McDonald’s customer who refused to provide her phone number, on May 28.
Since Wu’s murder, the Chinese government has arrested nearly 1,000 individuals suspected of being members of Almighty God, an organization classified in China as one of 14 “illegal cults.” Founded in central China’s Henan province in 1989, Almighty God is a quasi-Christian entity that claims a Chinese woman, Lightning Deng, is Jesus reincarnate and will soon spark the apocalypse. According to the church’s website, Almighty God has “millions” of members throughout China, Taiwan and the United States.
Although the Chinese constitution affirms freedom of religion, the Chinese Communist Party recognizes only five official faiths: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism. Each of these five religions has a hierarchical governing structure within China that reports to the Communist Party; the Chinese Catholic Church is not loyal to the Vatican.
In addition to sanctioned religious entities, China has a large numbers of adherents of unofficial religious traditions. Some are like underground “house” Catholic churches that recognize Vatican leadership and are generally tolerated within China.
But Beijing differentiates between organized religion and 14 groups classified as “evil cults." In 1999, China engineered a highly visible crackdown on the Falun Gong, a group promoting healthy breathing exercises that attracted a fanatical following in the 1990s. Human rights organizations have accused the Communist Party of detaining and torturing Falun Gong adherents.
Almighty God attracted attention from state-run Chinese media in 2012, when authorities arrested 500 adherents for spreading apocalyptic rumors. According to an investigation published last month in Vice, Almighty God members recruit new members by infiltrating underground Chinese churches, and occasionally resort to practices like bribery to persuade skeptics.
These attempts at coercion catalyzed the incident at the McDonald's in Zhaoyuan, a small city located near China’s northeast coast. Video captured from closed-circuit cameras and civilian smartphones showed Zhang Lidong, an Almighty God member, pummeling Wu Shaoyuan with a mop handle and plastic chair while other members urged him to continue. Upon his arrest, Zhang expressed no remorse and referred to Wu as a “monster” and an “evil spirit.”
Since restrictions were relaxed in the early 1980s, religious faith has taken off in China: An estimated 31 percent of the Chinese population, or 450 million people, practice a religion of some kind in the country.