A secretive cult that exploits the weak and vulnerable

Updated: 2014-06-26 09:20

By He Na, Li Yao and Adelina Zhang (China Daily)

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A secretive cult that exploits the weak and vulnerable

After learning of his wife's murder at a McDonald's restaurant in Zhaoyuan, her husband, seen here being carried by a friend, had to be taken to the hospital. Zhang Yulei / China News Service

Ling's family is just one of many that have suffered. No official data is available, but media reports suggest that the sect has millions of members worldwide. In addition to the havoc wreaked upon families, the sect has been implicated in cases of severe injury, and even murder.

Five members of the cult are currently under arrest after beating to death a 35-year-old woman at a McDonald's restaurant in Zhao-yuan, Shandong province, on May 28. According to the official micro blog of the local police, the group was attempting to recruit new members. When the woman, who was waiting for her husband, refused to give them her phone number, they attacked and killed her.

A secretive cult that exploits the weak and vulnerable

Recruitment drives

Ruyang, a county in Henan with a population of 500,000, has two claims to fame: It's the home of Dukang liquor, a brand famous across China, and is also the birthplace of Quannengshen.

On the surface, Ruyang looks like a typically busy county, abuzz with people riding electric bikes. There's little obvious evidence of the cult's existence in the county, but regular churchgoers are all too aware of its influence and activities.

Pastor Zhai Zhanqing of the Center Church, which has a congregation of about 1,000, said Quannengshen members have visited on many occasions. "Three middle-aged women approached me. They promised to give me money if I converted and urged my congregation to do the same. Their theories are strange, and some of their biblical references made no sense, so I was suspicious straightaway. Instead of converting, I tried to persuade them to leave the sect. They became very angry," he said.

Realizing the gravity of the situation, Zhai spoke with members of his congregation and discovered that they too had been approached. "Their theories are misinterpretations of biblical teaching, so they consider Christians to be their main targets for recruitment. To prevent people from being brainwashed, I constantly remind churchgoers to remain firm in their faith. We have also improved church management and made a record of attendances at every service," he said.

Those who suddenly stop attending the church, or announce their withdrawal, are visited by officials to ensure they haven't become involved with Quannengshen. "The affairs of the bigger churches are strictly managed, and the pastors are local residents, so it's not easy for members of the cult to gain access. However, in small 'house' churches in the countryside, where management is comparatively lax and the quality of religious teaching is low, it's hard to ensure that there are no loopholes for the cult to exploit," Zhai said.

Given that the majority of Christians in China's rural areas are elderly or uneducated "left behind" women who are unable to distinguish a cult from an established religious practice, Zhai urged the government to make greater efforts to manage house churches.

Zhai's concerns were given greater credence when reporters visited several townships in Ruyang. In Wangping, deep in the mountains an hour's drive from the county seat, most of the residents admitted that they'd been approached by the sect.

Wangping, which comprises 12 villages with a combined population of 12,000, is registered as a national-level poverty-stricken township which has poor transport links and little workable land. Most of the young people have moved away to the cities to work. Lacking alternative entertainment options, the elderly residents while away the hours playing mahjong, a popular Chinese game.

Liu Shang, who owns a shoe store, said Quannengshen often tries to recruit members in the township. "Their activities reached a climax in December 2012, because they were convinced the world would end on Dec 21. They went from door to door warning people that they wouldn't survive if they didn't follow Quannengshen," he said.

"My wife is a leader at the local Christian church, which has 300 members. Members of the cult often visit my shop because they hope to recruit her, but she always reproves them severely. I'm really worried because if we annoy them, they may try to take revenge," he added. "I also know many villagers who believe in Quannengshen, and it's not news here that many wives and mothers have run away from home."