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“A brutal cult branded “evil” by the Chinese government is operating in Australia.
That’s according to Sydney-based pastor Andrew Hong who said Eastern Lightning — also known as Church of Almighty God — has been creating “alarm” among church leaders.
“They’ve changed the name — but yes they’re operating here. Not in my church but in other churches here,” he told news.com.au.
“It’s very popular because they basically talk to people who have some experience of Christianity and say ‘we can promise you freedom from sin’ but it actually ends up enslaving people to a cult. While it has some similarities with Christianity it’s really nothing of the sort.”
The cult is thought to be behind a brutal bashing at a suburban McDonald’s in China, where six members entered the restaurant and started asking people for their phone number.
When 37-year-old mother Wu Shuoyan refused she was savagely beaten in front of her young sons as shocked diners watched on.
She later died in hospital.
Five adult members have been charged with intentional homicide, according to China’s state news agency Xinhua.
They include Zhang Lidong, 54, his partner, two children and his daughter’s friend.
Chinese state media agency Xinhua reports Zhang Lidong followed his daughter to join the cult. The night before the murder she had beaten her pet dog to death thinking it was an evil spirit.
The former businessman later appeared in a video shot in prison, confessing to the murder of Wu Shuoyan, saying: “I beat her with all my might and stamped on her too.”
“She was a demon and we had to destroy her.”
Mr Hong said local church groups had organised seminars to warn people about Eastern Lightning’s presence in Australia.
“There’s been reports of people who join a church and seem really enthusiastic, become part of the leadership, and later they discover they’ve been talking about Lightning from the East.
He said local churches are working to ensure worshippers are who they say they are.
“In our church when people get baptised they now have to produce ID to show their legal name. That wasn’t the case in the past, [it is] to try to stop this sort of thing happening.”
The group was founded in the early 1990s by physics teacher Zhao Weishan with the belief Christ had been reincarnated as a woman from central China known as “Lightning Deng”.
The official website has a Christian ethos that describes China as the land where the “great red dragon inhabits”, and that is controlled tightly “like a fortress of demons”.
But it’s been officially branded an “evil cult” by the government in Beijing and dogged with claims of brutal tactics like extortion, beatings, murder and seduction to recruit new members.
University of Melbourne academic Emily Dunn has written a thesis on the organisation and said there was a distinct difference between their online presence and what some members did in real life.
“The incident in McDonalds would fall into that category. If you look at Eastern Lightning’s website they say the Chinese authorities can’t prove that person was associated with the Church of the Almighty God … It’s a conspiracy fabricated by the government to justify a crackdown on us.”
Membership is said to be up to one million and the group was thought to be behind the kidnapping of 35 members of an evangelical Christian group, 12 years ago, according to the South China Morning Post.
Reports of beatings, harassment and aggressive proselytising are also common.
“The group disputes it but I’m not sure anyone else does,” Ms Dunn said.
The group has tried to establish a foothold in the US, Hong Kong and Korea before.
However Ms Dunn said their efforts may have been hampered by greater religious freedom in these countries.
“They haven’t had much success outside mainland China. I suppose you could speculate that’s because there’s greater freedom of religion generally so it might make it harder for Eastern Lightning to operate,” she said.
The Church of the Almighty God has failed to respond to news.com.au’s request for comment.”