HONG KONG —
The brutal killing of a woman inside a McDonald’s restaurant in eastern China is highlighting the sometimes violent tactics of a banned religious cult. The “Eastern Lighting church,” is a millenarian religious group believed to have as many as three million followers.
Footage of last week’s deadly attack was captured on a mobile phone, and has since been covered extensively in China’s state-backed media and social media.
The altercation began after the victim, a 35-year-old woman who was also dining at the McDonald’s, refused to give her phone number to one of the suspects.
One video shows the group ganging up against the victim. A woman's voice is heard telling onlookers not to get involved or they would be killed as well.
Police apprehended the suspects who say they are members of a religious cult called Quannengshen, or "Almighty God."
In an interview given to state media after he was arrested, one of the suspects admitted to participating in the killing and said the victim was an evil spirit.
“[I beat her] because she was a monster, an evil spirit. The goal was to beat her to death,” Zhang said.
After searching the suspects' homes, investigators found illegal religious material.
A local law enforcement official told China's state TV broadcaster the suspects will be charged with using a cult to sabotage law enforcement.
The church of Almighty God, also known as Eastern Lighting church, has been active in China since the early 1990s.
Its main teachings include the belief that God has been reincarnated as a woman in rural China. The church has repeatedly come to the attention of Chinese authorities for its violent practices.
In 2012 police arrested hundreds of followers after they had spread rumors about doomsday, the end of the world.
The same year, a man whom authorities say was under the influence of the cult stabbed 23 children in a primary school in Henan province.
Hong Kong based American pastor Dennis Balcombe said he was attacked by cult members after they had tried to persuade him to join their church. “They are very wicked people, it's not just like a religious group. They will kidnap you, they will use extortion, they'll use sex to get you to a compromising position, to try and get you to either give money or join them," he stated.
The church has an estimated following of about three million people, which Balcombe said is an impressive number considering the pressure they are under.
“Where there is more prosperity, where the education level is higher they don't seem to be as strong, yet they will go everywhere, they will try to contact people. But in some of these more run down areas, rural areas they seem to be making a lot of progress,” said Balcombe.
An underage boy also took part in the attack at the McDonald's.
According to Chinese media, he was the son and brother of three of the suspects arrested.