'Christian' cult members on trial for murder
Members of a Christian fundamentalist religious cult alleged to have murdered a woman at a fast food restaurant in China are about to go on trial in what is expected to be one of the most controversial cases for decades.
Reuters and other news sources reported in June that the woman, aged 37, was beaten to death at the end of May in the coastal Zhaoyuan city in Shandong province for refusing to give her telephone number to members of the Church of the Almighty God.
Six people were arrested after the attack, which was captured on CCTV and broadcast in China.
The controversial cult, also known as Eastern Lightning, is banned by the Chinese authorities.
On its website, it is highly critical of the Chinese government for "resisting and rebelling against God and being hostile to God."
According to the BBC, one of those arrested, Zhang Lidong, showed no remorse and no fear and interviewed in prison afterwards he said: "I beat her with all my might and stamped on her too. She was a demon. We had to destroy her."
The cult believes God has returned to earth as a Chinese woman to bring about the apocalypse. The BBC reports that the only person who claims direct contact with this god is a former physics teacher, Zhao Weishan, who founded the cult 25 years ago and now runs it from the United States.
The cult claims a membership numbering many millions. Chinese officials have described it as "a social cancer and a plague on humankind." The name "Eastern Lightning" comes from the New Testament, Gospel of Matthew 24:27: "For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be."
The alleged murder would not be the first time the group has been involved with violent incidents. Doomsday riots, the killing of a schoolboy because one of his relatives wanted to leave the church, a stabbing and the blinding of a boy by pulling his eyes out have all been attributed to cult members.
The BBC's China editor Carrie Gracie reports: "We found many victims through family support websites and heard of a shadowy cell structure where false names and identities make it almost impossible to trace relatives. A picture emerged of recruiters who start by offering support and move on to intimidation, who persuade new members to hand over money in exchange for salvation, and who sometimes resort to seduction and kidnapping."
She says Christianity provides a sense of shared values and community at a time when the Communist Party seems to many Chinese to have stopped trying. "But the cult promises an even closer-knit community and even more direct route to salvation. Its recruiters are skilled at targeting people at times of vulnerability: a major illness in the family, a marriage break up, a job loss."
The BBC interviewed one cult victim, Wang Jiannan, who lost his mother, sister and his father to the cult.
Last year, his sister beat their father to death because she saw him as a demon who must be destroyed, he said. She is in prison alongside the McDonald's murderers.
"My sister has committed the crime and must be punished. But I just want my mother to see clearly the damage the cult has done to her family. I want her to leave and become a normal person. This is my biggest hope."
Gracie concludes: "So far the cult has inflicted its damage on individuals and families. Despite its vocal hostility to the Communist Party, it has mobilised no meaningful political threat. And a threat to the Party, rather than the people, is what it takes to trigger a crackdown in China."