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China arrests 1,000 members of banned religious cult 'Eastern Lightning'

By Katie Hunt, CNN
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 0502 GMT (1302 HKT)
Pictures released by Chinese police show the group's founder Zhao Weishan, right, and his wife, who is regarded by the group as a Christ-like figure.
Pictures released by Chinese police show the group's founder Zhao Weishan, right, and his wife, who is regarded by the group as a Christ-like figure.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Almost 1,000 members of a banned religious group arrested in China
  • State media says group responsible for suicides and murders
  • Arrests come after five members charged with brutal killing in McDonald's restaurant
  • Church of Almighty God believes Christ reincarnated as Chinese woman

Hong Kong (CNN) -- Chinese police have arrested nearly 1,000 suspected members of a banned religious group, state media reported.

The arrests come months after five members of the group, known as the Church of Almighty God or "Quannengshen", were charged with the brutal killing in May of a woman in a McDonald's restaurant while they were allegedly trying to recruit her.

A report by state news agency Xinhua said that the group, which Beijing regards as a dangerous doomsday cult, cheated people, illegally collected money and "violated the law under the guise of religion."

"A series of acts by its members have harmed people's lives and property, and disrupted social stability," Xinhua said.

China doomsday cult members detained

The report added that members of the cult, also known as "Eastern Lightning," were responsible for "numerous" suicides and murders, including those of their own family.

Among those arrested were nearly 100 "backbone members", Xinhua said.

IN DEPTH: 'Eastern Lightning': The banned religious group that has China worried

In May, a 37-year-old woman was beaten to death in the fast food outlet in the eastern province of Shandong. The case triggered a wave of revulsion toward the group on Chinese social media.

"She was a demon," one of the suspects, Zhang Lidong, said in television interview following his arrest. "She was an evil spirit."

Five adults have been charged with murder, and their trial begins on Thursday, Xinhua said.

The group has been on a list of 14 banned religious groups issued by China's Ministry of Public Security since 1995.

According to Chinese media reports, it has been responsible for a spate of robberies, assaults and kidnappings. In 2012, hundreds of members were rounded up after the group publicly proclaimed the end of the world was imminent.

In a statement provided to CNN in June, members of the group responsible for its English-language website said it was "very natural" for the Chinese Communist Party to blame the group for the McDonald's death because the Party slandered and then suppressed those that disagreed with it.

"They always find some excuse in advance and fabricate things and slander them," said the statement.

Founded in the 1990s in central China, the group believes that Jesus has been reincarnated as Yang Xiangbin, the wife of the group's founder, Zhao Weishan.

The couple fled to the United States in 2000, Xinhua reported.

READ: Future of Christianity in China

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