The brutal murder of a woman at a fast food restaurant by members of a religious cult in East China's Shandong Province has triggered debate over the spread of heretic religious sects, which analysts attributed to the absence of spiritual support during the country's drastic social transition.
As of Monday, five people were officially arrested and one, who is under 14, remained detained for suspected intentional homicide, local police said.
The suspects beat a 35-year-old woman, surnamed Wu, to death on Wednesday in a McDonald's outlet in Zhaoyuan, Shandong Province after the woman refused to give the suspects her phone number. According to an earlier police statement, the suspects were trying to recruit the victim for the Church of Almighty God, a heretic religious sect banned by Chinese authorities.
Zhang Lidong, 55, the lead perpetrator, told China Central Television that he did not know the victim and he attacked her because he believed that her refusal to be recruited into his sect proved that "she was a demon and an evil spirit."
Three other suspects are Zhang's two daughters and his 12-year-old son, who are all members of the sect.
When asked whether he fears the law, Zhang replied, "I have no fear. We believe in God."
"There are still debates over where to draw the line between a cult and a normal religion. But people need to remember that they have multiple responsibilities in this world, both to their belief and as a citizen. To [only] believe in God and not the law is clearly the teaching of a cult," Li Xiangping, a religious studies professor from East China Normal University in Shanghai, told the Global Times.
In a telephone interview with the Global Times, a representative from the Church of Almighty God's Taiwan headquarters said that "it was impossible for her sect mates to commit such a crime, as they are all Christians."
However, the sect, which claims to be Christian, has already been rejected by the Vatican.
In April 2013, Agenzia Fides, the Vatican news agency, reported that "with its method of deception, blackmail to Catholic leaders, for scandals artfully constructed," the Church of Almighty God "is sowing confusion among evangelical Christians and even among Catholics."
"From many testimonies we learn that this sect usually uses moral and physical violence, such as torture, and kidnapping of people, poisoning, and even murder of those who intend to abandon it," said Fides.
Mainstream Protestant groups have also said they are uncomfortable with the teachings of this "Church."
The sect has been revealed to be related to a series of ruthless killings, including an attack against school children in Guangshan, Henan Province in December 2012. In that case, under the preaching of doomsday theory by a follower of the cult, a man stabbed 23 school children at a primary school. No one died, but four children were severely injured.
Previously known as Lightning of the East, the Church of Almighty God is a derivation of "The Shouters," and was founded by Zhao Weishan in the 1990s. It was declared a cult and banned by Chinese authorities in 1995. Zhao fled to the US as a result of the crackdown.
Despite the fact that many of the sect's texts are inspired by the Bible, the cult said that the Bible has become outdated and that a new third testament has been revealed by a female "Jesus," believed to be the incarnation of God.
The sect has mainly spread in rural areas and is making its way into cities. It targets illiterate farmers and religious believers as potential followers.
The female "Jesus" refers to a woman surnamed Deng from Henan, who suffered a mental disorder after failing the national college exams around 1990. Zhao declared Deng as reincarnated female "Jesus" and himself as her high priest.
However, like many other extreme religious sects or cults, the Church of Almighty God forces its believers to give up their secular life and devote themselves to almighty God.
Many family members of sect believers reached by the Global Times said their loved ones left their families to do secret missionary work. Many never returned.
One man whose mother became embroiled with the cult said in a social media chat group for victims of this cult that the family tried to intervene to stop its malign influence.
"My dad called police three times, trying to stop the cult meetings. They never showed up. In the end, my mom just ran away with other cult members," said one man from Henan. Another participant in the group said his mother ran away 12 years ago, and still cannot be found. Many participants said they worried what would become of their relatives when they get older and unable to contribute to the sect.
To Yang Fenggang, director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society from Purdue University in Indiana, the prosperity of these new sects is a result of social change as people adjust their values and seek new meaning to life. "Cracking down on heretic sects only cures the symptoms, not the disease," Yang told the Global Times.
A critique carried by news portal people.com.cn said that the cult had taken advantage of a phase when China is going through social transformation. The article said that the lack of spiritual support and the distance with modern civilization among the lower class have all contributed to the development of the cult.