Chinese media reported on Thursday that police have detained 18 alleged members of the banned Church of Almighty God, also known as “Eastern Lightning” or “Quannengshen,” whose signature belief is that Jesus has been reborn as a Chinese woman, with the objective of unleashing the Apocalypse.
The BBC notes that Chinese authorities have staged frequent crackdowns on the cult. The current round of detentions also included the confiscation of computers and cult recruiting materials. The crackdown was evidently precipitated by an investigation of the group’s use of intense pressure tactics to extort money from members.
Five of its members were accused of beating a woman to death with chairs and a mop handle at a McDonald’s restaurant in May 2014, while her seven-year-old son watched, because she refused to give the cult members her phone number when they demanded it. A member of the cult later claimed they murdered the woman because they realized she was an “evil spirit.” Footage of the McDonald’s attack uploaded by other customers became a viral sensation. Two of the convicted perpetrators of the assault were eventually executed.
China oppresses religion in general, but the government is especially aggressive about putting down the Church of Almighty God because of its violence, extortion tactics, and fervent belief that Communism is a “Great Red Dragon” – a manifestation of Satan – that Lady Jesus and her followers are destined to slay.
Despite its odd beliefs and lurid history, the cult is said to be growing larger and spreading across Hong Kong, Taiwan, and even the United States. Other Chinese Christian groups have said the Church of Almighty God aggressively recruits from their numbers, resorting to kidnapping, torture, seduction, and brainwashing when proselytizing doesn’t work. Recruits often become unstable and alienated from their families.
Hong Kong Christians warned in 2013 that the cult, which is now about 25 years old, was undertaking a multimillion-dollar push to expand its membership. Some estimates say the group now has over a million members worldwide. An underground Protestant leader told the UK Guardian in 2012 that Eastern Lightning is very adept at making Biblical verses seem “highly relevant to Chinese culture, so it’s easy for Chinese people to understand what they’re preaching.”
The current whereabouts of the female Messiah, whose name is “Lightning Deng” according to cult teachings, are a subject of some debate. According to various sources, either cult founder Zhao Weishan, a former physics teacher, and his wife are the only people who have met Lightning Deng in the flesh, or Zhao’s wife is Lightning Deng.
The couple fled China for the United States in 2000. A July 2013 article at Vice News reported that they were most likely living in New York’s Chinatown, although cult pamphlets have also been found in San Francisco.
Besides the McDonald’s murder, the other event that brought Eastern Lighting onto the Chinese government’s radar was its celebration of the 2012 Mayan Apocalypse, which disappointingly failed to materialize. Accounts of the cult’s activities portray it as a mixture of wacky hijinks, such as nude all-female dance parties, and merciless indoctrination.
There is a good deal of sniping back and forth between the Church of Almighty God and other underground Christian churches in China, with the former frequently accusing other Christian denominations of being insincere believers who only want to bilk their congregations out of money.
Newsweek notes that in 2012, Christian human rights organization ChinaAid stated that “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.”