In China’s latest attempt to crack down on religious cults, 21 members of the banned Church of Almighty God were given jail terms, state media said Wednesday. The group was blamed for the death of a 37-year-old woman who was beaten to death at a McDonald’s after she refused to give her phone number to members who tried to recruit her.

Two of the four members in that case were sentenced to death in October. Two of the individuals sentenced on Wednesday have been given seven- and four-year prison terms for “organizing and using the cult to damage law enforcement,” Shanghai Daily reports. The men, identified as Zhang Shuzhi and Geng Yuqin, were sentenced at a court in China’s northeastern Liaoning province.

Police arrested them in July after reportedly finding memory cards and books that contained information on the cult’s teachings. The court also found the two men recruited new members as well.

The remaining 19 members received prison sentences between two and six years in neighboring Jilin province. The city of Yanji has reportedly been cracking down on the cult, Xinhua reports.

Religion in China

While the Chinese government allows Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, and Catholic and Protestant Christianity to be practiced, the groups must be affiliated with a government organization called the State Administration for Religious Affairs. However, millions attend “house churches” and follow other unsanctioned religious organizations.  

The Church of Almighty God (also known as Eastern Lightning) is among the 14 religious groups the Chinese government has labeled an “evil cult.” These organizations face strict scrutiny since some have been known to cause unrest. For instance, the Taiping Rebellion of the mid-19th century that resulted in 20 million deaths, was started by a man who believed he was the younger brother of Jesus.  

Church of Almighty God

Up to a million members across China follow the Church of Almighty God since its founding in 1989. Most are in rural areas. Its members believe that God has returned to Earth as a woman named Yang Xiangbin, who will guide mankind for the third and last time. China’s Communist Party is called “the Great Red Dragon,” whose growth triggers the end of the world. Previously, the cult pushed the doomsday belief that the apocalypse would take place on Dec. 21, 2012. At the time nearly 1,000 members were arrested for handing out apocalyptic pamphlets.

According to a 2014 report by China’s People Daily, members who attract more converts gain a higher status within the cult. Tactics include missionary work where nonmembers are enticed with money, gifts and sexual favors. A member receives 20,000 yuan ($3,237) for every new person they convert. New members are encouraged to purchase religious materials and pay 2,000 yuan ($323) in membership fees. They are told they will be punished if they leave the faith.

Latest Crackdown

To date, the group has been associated with several crimes. In 1998, eight violent riots have taken place in Henan province. In 2010, an elementary school student was murdered after his uncle tried to leave the cult. In 2012, a 36-year-old man went on a stabbing spree in Chenpeng village where 22 students and one elderly woman were injured.

Liu Ling is a Peking University graduate student who has been studying the Church of Almighty God for two years as part of her thesis work. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in June, she explained that while she has read media reports about the group’s violent attacks, she has been unable to verify they took place. She has interviewed relatives of cult members who say they have had their windows smashed and fires set in their yards as an effort to force them to join the group -- but nothing as violent as the McDonald’s murder that took place in May.

In wake of that incident, Chinese authorities have intensified efforts to find Almighty God members and arrest them. So far, about 1,500 members have been arrested. Some have been in custody since 2012, the New York Times reports. For some, the crackdown is reminiscent of what took place in 1999 when members of the quasi-spiritual movement known as Falun Gong were jailed after 10,000 members peacefully demonstrated outside the government’s central compound.

Today, banners are seen in public spaces across China urging people to, “Believe in science, create culture, make great efforts against evil cults."

"I think it's more visible. After the Falun Gong, there was a wave of this kind of propaganda," Nanlai Cao, associate professor in religious studies at the People's University of China in Beijing, told the Los Angeles Times. "The past five years, I don't think it was very visible, but now I think it's a big issue and has become a top priority for government officials."