They believe Christ was reincarnated as a Chinese woman said to be living in New York, and they gained notoriety for mass kidnappings and a brutal murder in a McDonald’s in 2014. Now the doomsday sect known as Eastern Lightning is back in the spotlight after a six-month investigation by Chinese authorities.
The sect, also known as the Church of Almighty God, is one of 14 religious groups banned by the Chinese government, which launches sporadic raids on the group’s underground operations. In the latest crackdown, on July 25, police in Changxing County, Zhejiang province, arrested 18 members. The raid was reported by the state-run China News Service, which described the group as the country’s “most dangerous cult.”
Founded in the 1990s by a former physics teacher, the group is considered by authorities to be the most serious of a number of unorthodox new religious movements to find an audience in China. According to the University of Melbourne’s Emily Dunn, who wrote her doctoral thesis on Eastern Lightning, the group has been linked to reports of murders and beatings, as well as more general harassment and the brainwashing of members and recruits.
Most infamously, five of its members beat a woman to death in a McDonald’s in Zhaoyuan, Shandong province, in 2014. During their attempts to recruit new members in the restaurant, the victim had refused to hand over her phone number, and they attacked her, accusing her of being an “evil spirit.”
Eastern Lightning preaches that Christ has returned to Earth in the form of a Chinese woman to judge humanity in the end times, and sees itself as locked in an existential battle with the Chinese Communist Party, which it refers to as the “great red dragon.”
The group’s underground status makes it hard to assess its size, but it is known to operate in Chinese communities around the world. Dunn estimated it has somewhere between several hundred thousand to a million members.
In China itself, the group has swelled, thanks in part to a broad religious revival that has swept the country, bringing the Christian population to an estimated 70 million.
A large proportion of China’s Christians belong to independent Protestant churches, rather than officially sanctioned Christian denominations – so-called “house churches,” whose members meet without state approval in private homes or buildings. To potential recruits, Eastern Lightning might initially be difficult to distinguish from more orthodox “house churches,” helping it to win new followers, Dunn explained.
The group has reportedly often sought to co-opt entire congregations into its ranks, allegedly using seduction, extortion, and threats to ensnare house church leaders and force them to join the sect. In one 2002 case, 35 “house church” leaders from an evangelical group called the China Gospel Fellowship were allegedly kidnapped simultaneously in a number of cities across the mainland, in a coordinated attempt to absorb the movement.
Chinese authorities have issued warnings to Christian pastors, explaining the threat posed to their congregations by the sect. In Hong Kong, evangelical groups have been closely monitoring attempts by Eastern Lightning to convert their members in recent years.
One Hong Kong-based pastor, who did not want to be named, told VICE News he was attacked by members of Eastern Lightning after they approached him at his office.
“They pretended they were house church people, but I soon realized they were Eastern Lightning,” he said. “When I got out my camera to take a picture of them, they became very violent against me.”
When VICE News approached the Church of Almighty God in the U.S. for comment on the recent arrests and to comment on allegations against the group, a member replied with links to videos outlining the treatment of the group by the Chinese Communist Party, and complaining about previous media coverage of the group.
“Sensible people all know that the murder in Zhaoyuan, Shandong province is the excuse the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) found to intentionally frame the Church of Almighty God and launch a full-fledged crackdown on the underground churches, especially the Church of Almighty God,” stated one video, comparing the incident to the Tiananmen Square massacre as an example of how Beijing used pretexts to suppress its enemies.
“The real Christians of the Church of false Almighty God won’t do anything illegal, and they are all honest and kind people.”
While Eastern Lightning might be the most concerning of China’s current crop of pseudo-Christian movements, it has far more disruptive precedents. In the mid-19th century, the Taiping Rebellion began when Chinese officials cracked down on a millennarian sect led by Hong Xiuquan, who believed himself to be the younger brother of Jesus. In the ensuing civil war, at least 20 million were killed.