Inside China's most radical cult - which believes Jesus is reincarnated as woman in her 40s
Published 21/08/2014 | 13:29
It was the day after Chinese New Year when Peng Lijuan, a 28-year-old computer science graduate, ran off to join China's most radical cult.
"When I got home, I found our car there, and all her clothes, her ID card, all her belongings, but she was missing," said her husband Peng Baoshun.
The couple had only been married for a year and rarely fought, said Mr Peng. Seven months later, he has not seen or heard from her since.
Shandong, their home province, is the heart of the Church of Almighty God, a cult that believes that Jesus has risen in the shape of a 40-something Chinese woman named Yang Xiangbin, also sometimes known as Lightning Deng.
Today, five members of the cult will go on trial in Yantai, a seaside city in Shandong, for murdering a 37-year-old woman in a branch of McDonald's while she waited for her husband and seven-year-old son.
No one intervened to stop the killing, which was caught on smartphone cameras, as Zhang Lidong, an unemployed salesman, three of his children and his partner tried to enlist the woman and then bludgeoned her to death when they failed.
"She was a monster," he later said on television. "She is an evil spirit. We are not afraid of the law. We have faith in God."
The Church of Almighty God has said the case against its five members is "full of lies and layered with dubious facts".
After being put on a wanted list by the Chinese police 14 years ago, Yang Xiangbin and her lover, the founder of the cult and a former physics teacher Zhao Weishan, travelled to the United States on false passports and claimed political asylum.
Today, they mastermind an organisation with as many as a million members and which is on a ruthless recruitment drive, especially targeting housewives and members of China's Christian congregations.
"I have seen some of their teaching material," said Mr Peng. "It begins just like normal Christianity, with no difference at all. But when you get more involved, they introduce the theory of [Mrs Yang] being 'Almighty God'."
Mr Peng said the teachings are straightforward. "They just want you to repeat over and over that you obey 'God', listen to her, and not fight back. And there are threats for those who think of quitting. After six months, a new member can be brainwashed."
The Church of Almighty God, which is also known as Eastern Lightning, boasts a slick website in both Chinese and English, professionally produced videos, and even recently took a double-page advertisement in The Times newspaper.
In 22 pages of instructions sent from the United States in June and July, the heads of the cult preached that the "chosen ones" should be ready to "sacrifice their lives" and that their ultimate goal is to kill the Communist party, referred to in their teachings as "the Great Red Dragon".
If cultists murder Communist party members "the spirit of the Great Red Dragon will no longer possess them," according to the material.
The Chinese government has been slow to grasp the scale of the cult, but since the McDonald's attack in May the police have arrested over 1,000 of its members, according to state media.
As a result, many members have gone underground, staying with "host families" in the Chinese countryside.
"Every parish must secure its perimeter," said the instructions from the cult leaders. "Everyone should keep hiding, maybe until October. If the situations in certain cities are particularly bad, you should hide in a neighbouring city."
In Beijing, Qi Jianguo, a former engineer at a car parts factory, said 90 per cent of the cult's new members are women, many of whom have been introduced by their friends and family.
"My wife was always very respectful of her mother, so when she asked her to start going, she did," said Mr Qi, whose wife abandoned him and their five-year-old son earlier this year.
"You can see how far from Christianity this cult is. Christianity preaches that family is important. Who would tell a mother to leave behind their child?"
Mr Qi is part of a network of thousands of family members who use the internet to share their stories. "There must be 30,000 families in Beijing alone who have been abandoned," he said.
"From what people say, the cult is like a pyramid and the members at the bottom do not know the names of the levels above. The purpose is to collect money. They have to give donations," he said.
He added that the cult, which for many years has recruited uneducated Chinese in the countryside, is changing its focus. "They are now targeting educated members. There is one woman who joined in Shandong with a postgraduate degree, and there was a SWAT policeman in Guangzhou who was given three years in jail after his commander found out he had joined."
One 31-year-old former member of the cult, who owns a small company in the eastern city of Yangzhou, who asked not to be named, said she had started going to meetings because a close friend asked her to.
"The strategy is to slowly draw you in. It is like taking classes in school. They told us there are three steps to believing in God. First you believe in Joseph, then in Christ, then in the female reincarnation of Christ."
"They asked us to convert more people or God would be upset. The meetings were led by 'teachers'. New members like me could not ask any questions about their personal life. I only knew my teacher as Little Red. I did not even know her real name."
The woman said she had quit after feeling herself become more and more anxious about life. "At night I would always feel scared when I was alone," she said. Her husband eventually persuaded her to quit.
But both Mr Peng and Mr Qi saw their wives gradually lose interest in their work and devoted their lives to watching videos online.
"She was very mysterious, always keeping secrets and never allowing anyone to see her mobile phone, hiding it under her pillow at night," said Mr Peng. "She basically stopped working, just spent her time on the internet".
However, both men dismissed some of the wilder rumours circulating about the cult; that members have kidnapped priests and that they blackmail them after seducing them into orgies.
"There may be some extreme cases," said Mr Qi. "But basically the members are good in their heart."