Killing in Shandong McDonald’s exposes ‘church’ run from US by woman called God
It was the day after Chinese New Year when Peng Lijuan, a 28-year-old computer science graduate, ran off to join China's most radical cult.
"When I got home I found our car there, all her clothes, her ID card, all her belongings, but she was missing," said her husband, Peng Baoshun.
The couple had been married for only a year and rarely fought, said Peng. Seven months later, he has not seen or heard from her.
Shandong, their home province, is the heart of the Church of Almighty God, a cult that believes Jesus has risen in the form of 40-something Chinese woman Yang Xiangbin, also sometimes known as Lightning Deng.
Yesterday, five members of the cult went on trial in Shandong for murdering a 37-year-old woman in a McDonald's branch while she waited for her husband and 7-year-old son.
No one intervened to stop the killing, which was filmed on smartphone cameras, as Zhang Lidong, an unemployed salesman, three of his children and his partner tried to enlist the woman and then bludgeoned her to death when they failed.
"She was a monster," he later said on television. "She is an evil spirit. We are not afraid of the law. We have faith in God." The Church of Almighty God has said the case against its five members is "full of lies and layered with dubious facts".
After being put on a wanted list by police 14 years ago, Yang Xiangbin and her lover Zhao Weishan, the founder of the cult and a former physics teacher, went to the United States on false passports and claimed political asylum.
They mastermind an organisation with as many as a million members which is on a recruitment drive, especially targeting housewives and members of Christian congregations.
"I have seen some of their teaching material," said Peng. "It begins just like normal Christianity ... But when you get more involved, they introduce the theory of [Yang] being Almighty God.
"They just want you to repeat over and over that you obey "God", listen to her, and not fight back. And there are threats for those who think of quitting."
The Church of Almighty God, also known as Eastern Lightning, boasts a slick website, professional videos, and recently took out a double-page advertisement in the Times.
Heads of the cult preach that the "chosen ones" should be ready to "sacrifice their lives" and that their ultimate goal is to kill the Communist Party, referred to in their teachings as "the Great Red Dragon". If cultists murder Communist Party members, "the spirit of the Great Red Dragon will no longer possess them".
The Government has been slow to grasp the scale of the cult, but since the McDonald's attack in May more than 1000 members have been arrested. Many members have gone underground, staying with "host families" in the countryside.