China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2014/Aug

Cults and crosses

Here in Hong Kong we recently have been reading newspaper articles and seeing photos of extremely disturbing happenings in mainland China.

There have been strange, secretive groups or cults in China for years, but in this day and age with people well educated, with the freedom to believe or not to believe in a religion, able to travel to different parts of the country and even to travel overseas, hearing about people believing in cults has been shocking.

The Eastern Lightening (EL) cult, also known as the Almighty God cult, was banned in China nearly 20 years ago, but it made national headlines after several of its underground followers were arrested for murdering a woman – a Ms Wu – in Shandong province in May.

A bystander recorded the horrible killing on his mobile phone. In the footage uploaded to the internet, Wu’s main assailant can be heard bellowing, “Go die, Evil spirit” as he pummels her. A female accomplice screeches at onlookers: “Whoever interferes will die!”

Twenty minutes later, the woman lay dead on the floor, beaten to death with a metal rod. Why? Wu refused to give her phone number to them, as that is part of their recruitment strategy. The offenders are in prison, but the self-confessed leader of the cult, Zhang Lidong, has shown no remorse for the killing.

Zhao Weishen, a former physics teacher, founded the cult in Ruyang County, Henan province, in the 1990s. He fled to the United States of America (US) when it was outlawed in 1995, but his followers are still active in China.

Eastern Lightening wants to convert the whole world to its views. It has set out to destroy the key leadership of China’s evangelical and charismatic Christians.

The cult rejects the bible even while quoting from it, claiming that only those who follow its teachings will escape divine judgment.

The group has taken to brutal coercion to gain converts. Kidnapping, beating, torture, poisoning, bribing, sexual blackmail, even killing key Christian leaders has become standard practice.

China’s Christians are abuzz with a recent, disturbing incident when 34 of the top leaders of one of the largest house-Church networks in China, the China Gospel Fellowship (CGF), were kidnapped by this vicious group. No one knew where they were being held or what was happening to them.

The CGF leaders were deceived into attending a meeting where they supposedly going to meet key Christian teachers who had flown in from Singapore. On arrival at the designated meeting point, they were divided into groups, deprived of their mobile phones and shoes, and locked in apartments and houses.

In the case of the CGF kidnappings, China’s Public Security Bureau, which often suppresses genuine evangelical groups on the spurious grounds that they are cults, agreed to help track down the kidnapping locations. In return, the CGF agreed to share with the police any information they had on Eastern Lightening activities.

To those who have closely followed China’s Christian developments over the years, these incidents are not just disturbing, they are terrifying. The Eastern Lightening cult is by far the most violent in a long roster of Chinese cults that have arisen over the years.

Throughout China’s history, people have experienced social upheavals originating with strange religious sects. In the mid-19th century, after Protestant missionaries began having an impact in a Chinese man claiming to be the younger brother of Jesus led an uprising, called the Taiping Rebellion, which caused the deaths of 20 million people.

The Boxer Rebellion, from 1989 to 1900, claimed the lives of some 30,000 Chinese and western Christians. Rebels believed they were invulnerable after engaging in mass spirit-possession.

Early in this century the Eastern Lightening maintained a low profile in Hong Kong, but in 2012 it started to emerge from the shadows, setting up street booths, distributing pamphlets, placing advertisements in newspapers and, most effectively, befriending regular churchgoers.

Yes, befriending Christians and mostly women is one of their strategies.

In a little village in Henan a man said that the village used to be a very vibrant place, and the villagers were simple and honest. However, after a growing number of locals began believing in Eastern Lightening, everything changed.

He said parents are not behaving like parents, and mothers are not taking care of the family and children. Many families have been ruined, with mothers cutting off relations with their children and other women leaving home without warning. His family has been ruined by this cult.

The government recently published its list of 20 active cults. Since then, events have unfolded with a ruthless and familiar logic: Every television channel and newspaper issued warnings about the dangers of evil cults. Community organisations, village authorities and schools got in on the act.

The anti-cult campaign extended to more mainstream religious practices. The government newspaper opened a barrage of attacks on China’s underground Christian Churches saying that they are cults spreading like mushrooms so the problem is very urgent.

The government’s anti-religion campaign is not born out of concern for public security stemming from a horrific murder. This is a concerted effort to bring independent Churches and their followers into line. The clampdown is simply the government’s way of strengthening its control of society.

As a perceived foreign religion, Christianity makes the Chinese leadership particularly nervous. They believe that Christianity contributed to the end of communist rule in Poland. They feel that unlawful groups are threatening China’s national security.

In 2010, government figures put the number of Christians in China at 23 million. The Pew Research Centre estimated in April that Christians account for around 5.1 per cent of the population, or 67 million believers, of whom around 58 million are Protestants and nine million are Catholics. A leading academic recently predicted China could have the largest number of Christians in the world by 2030.

On June 21, the South China Morning Post’s (SCMP) religion page ran this headline: Christians Resist Cross Campaign.

This campaign started in Zhejiang province when the Christians were told by the government that the crosses on their church buildings would be removed.

Xia Baolong, the Communist Party secretary of Zhejiang province conducted an inspection tour of the province earlier this year. Pointing at a cross on a church in a small town, he is reported to have announced that it was “too conspicuous and splashy.” It was therefore to be rectified, he said.

The cross was ripped down and a smaller one placed on the wall. Xia’s preemptory remarks, which continued during the inspection tour, seem to have cascaded into a wave of church demolitions across the province recently, under vague provisions of economic development and urban renewal.

On April 28, the target was the state-approved Sanjiang Church in Wenzhou City. Wrecking crews moved in on the church and ripped down its façade even as congregants attempted to stop them through protests.

A witness said: “I saw three or four excavators out front, demolishing the church and three or four out back, demolishing the annex building. I also saw a small excavator going inside the church doing demolition work inside.”

The assault on the Sanjiang Church, which until recently was considered the crown jewel of the city of Wenzhou or China’s Jerusalem, because of its many churches) is just one part of a campaign that crosses Zhejiang province and beyond.

In Zhejiang, some 360 churches or crosses have been torn down since January in the Three Rectifications and One Demolition campaign, which according to the government was “targeting all illegal buildings, not just churches” said China Aid, a US-based religious right group. (SCMP, June 23)

In this latest crackdown, even legal churches are fair game for the government’s bulldozers.

Most of the churches that have had their crosses taken down or been demolished have been Protestant churches. Here are known cases of Catholic churches: on April 4, church forcibly demolished; May 1, parts of a church torn down; May 4, church demolished; May 7, cross of a church covered with cloth; May 8, cross demolished; May 17, cross demolished.

Authorities have indicated that the campaign was likely to continue, promising to “aggressively push on with the demolition of illegal buildings,” the state-controlled Zhejiang Daily reported.

The motive for what appeared to be a widening crackdown was unknown but “an increasingly violent standoff between authorities and the church” was taking place, UCA News reported. Four Catholics were beaten and injured by government officials in Wenzhou recently when an argument broke out during the forced demolition of a church.

Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, communism has been promoted as the religion of the Chinese people, while traditional faiths have been suppressed.

During the Cultural Revolution, countless temples and churches were demolished. Many Buddhist monks and Christian clergy were forced to lead secular lives. As a result, traditional belief systems like Confucianism and Buddhism were weakened. But as the country has opened up, Chinese people have gained more personal freedoms and with that a renewed desire for faith. For many, Christianity fills a spiritual vacuum and offers a sense of belonging.

After reading about cults and crosses in China, it is hard to believe that Christians are being targeted by strange people and even government authorities in this day and age.

Christianity is not a secret cult. We believe in a loving God who sent his son to teach us the way of love for God and neighbour. We are not forced to believe through kidnappings and the like.

The cross is a sacred symbol of our faith and governments may want to take them down from churches or even take the whole church down, but that won’t destroy what we believe in and cherish.

In the epistle to the Hebrews 13:5-6, the writer reminds us of what God says, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you … The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?”