The slightly built 39-year-old Chinese woman speaks quietly but urgently. She has a story she needs to get out, but it is traumatic for her to tell it. “On July 17, 2009, I and other ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ were attending a meeting,” “Ling Xin” (not her real name) told Asia Times.

“Suddenly, 20 police jumped into our courtyard…the doors had been locked, [but] they kicked down the doors and burst in.”

Arrested, the group was conveyed to a holding facility. “They started interrogating us. Six police were taking three shifts, taking turns to interrogate us,” she recalled. “They kept asking, “Who are your brothers and sisters? Where are the funds? Who are your leaders?’”

Ling did not answer. The violence began.

“Several strong policemen pinned my arm behind my back and smashed my head on the floor. The officers would take turns. A female police officer took toothpicks and forced them into my skin. Another police officer said, ‘I am hurting my hands hitting you’ – so he took off his shoe and slapped me in the face with the sole.”

This continued for days, Ling said. Her tormenters threatened other methods: chili water, the rack. “I was worried could not stand much torture,” she said. Fearing she might betray her fellows, she attempted to kill herself by smashing her head against a bathroom wall.  She failed. ”My clothes were stained with blood, but a policeman said, ‘We won’t let you die. We will continue to interrogate,’” she recalled.

In fact, although Ling refused to talk, she was released on bail. One “sister,” surnamed Ma, was not so lucky – she died under torture. For a moment Ling breaks down at the memory, then composes herself and continues.

Religious persecution

Reluctant to implicate her family, she began “a wandering life,” moving from place to place across China, hiding out. Her husband lost his job and divorced her. “I could not sleep for fear that the police would break into the houses,” she said. “I felt I could not breathe.”

A nearby country, she heard, had a visa-free backdoor. “I learned South Korea had refugee policies,” she said. “I felt like I could not continue to live in China.”

And the crime that led to her seizure, incarceration, torture and exile? Ling is a Christian, a member of the underground Church of Almighty God, or CAG – sometimes known as “Eastern Lightning.”

In modern China, not all religions are persecuted – there are state-approved bodies that oversee Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim, Catholic, Protestant and other groups. But many are. Along with Muslim Uighurs, the Falun Gong qigong sect and Tibetan Buddhists, the CAG, considered a cult, is near the top of Beijing’s religious hit list. It is a long list – with a long history.

A painting at the Church of Almighty God in Seoul shows a Chinese police raid on a group of worshippers. Photo: Andrew Salmon / Asia Times

Dangerous cult or minority religion?

For centuries, Beijing has maintained a list of “xie jiao:” cults which could undermine state power. And certainly, cults have left a bloody smear on Chinese history.

In 1850, a Christian convert named Hong Xiuquan, convinced he was a brother of Jesus, sought to establish the “Taiping” – a heavenly kingdom on earth. The Qing reacted. Slaughter raged across China before the movement was finally annihilated in 1864. The dead may have reached 30 million, and many historians consider the Taiping Rebellion to be the second bloodiest war in history, behind World War II.

Now 21st century, Xi-era Beijing is also in crackdown mode, said Massimo Introvigne, an Italian Catholic and founder of the Center for Studies on New Religions, or CESNUR. “Deng Xiaoping thought that religion would disappear in 300 years, but in the meantime, should be tolerated,” he said. “Xi Jinping promulgated a new law in February 2018 that is much stricter than previous laws.”

It is unclear how many Christians are in China. While some believe the number could exceed 60 million, a 2017 estimate in Global Times put the figure at 50 million. This makes the underground CAG, established in 1991 and believed to be influenced by a 19th century Protestant group, The Brethren, a significant player. Beijing estimates CAG has 4 million members across China. Introvigne reckons 3 million.

Perhaps due to the nature of the church, which has no facilities, as it has to operate in the shadows, and has quiet, understated rituals of prayer and singing – church members are coy about their hierarchy and practices. But undeniably, CAG promotes unorthodox beliefs – such as that Jesus has reincarnated as a Chinese woman, Yang Xiangbin (currently believed to live in secrecy in New York).

Opponents claim CAG brainwashes followers, compelling them to abandon families, and accuse church members of promoting 2012 doomsday prophecies. CAG made international news for the “McDonalds Murders” of 2014, when six self-proclaimed “missionaries” entered a McDonalds in Shandong and demanded customers hand over their cellphone numbers. When one declined, she was beaten to death. Police captured the perpetrators and identified them as CAG members.

Some, however, dispute these cultish narratives. Among them is Introvigne, whose book on CAG is pending publication with Oxford University Press.

Italian religious scholar Massimo Introvigne has come out in defense of a church that China says is a cult. Photo: Andrew Salmon / Asia Times

Invited to China as a religious scholar in 2017, he was offered access to the trial transcripts in the McDonalds case. After weighing judicial and theological evidence, he concluded that the killers were not, nor had been, CAG members.

Moreover, citing how authoritarian governments use the word “cult” to excuse suppression, he considers it prejudicial. Instead, CAG “is a new, non-mainstream religion,” Introvigne told Asia Times. “I am a Catholic, and I am very far from their theology, but I believe, on the basis of human rights, in their right to practice a religion without being arrested or tortured.”

Hundreds of thousands in jail

Referring to the heavily suppressed qigong movement, he added: “Church of Almighty God is the new Falun Gong.” But while the giant Falun Gong, which may once have had 20 million followers across China, was suppressed on political grounds, CAG is suppressed on grounds that the religion is a cult. Now, there are more CAG members in the Chinese penal system than Falun Gong members, Introvigne’s partner Rosita Soryte, a former Lithuanian diplomat who heads the NGO International Observatory on Religious Freedom of Refugees.

And even behind bars, CAG believers are singled out. “In jail, the prisoners have a special tag,” she said. “Even other inmates are entitled and encouraged to humiliate these people. Being a member of CAG is a bigger crime than if you murder or rape a person.”

Major state resources are in play. Introvigne, who monitors Chinese media daily, noted that business newspaper Caixin Global News reported that 1,500 police officers were deployed against CAG in just the province of Qinghai. In 2017, Chinese officials told Introvigne that 300,000 members had been jailed.

The church itself, in a self-published report, claims that 400,000 CAG members were arrested between 2011-2017 and that 101 died. Last year, the church says 11,000 members were arrested, and that 20 of them. Church members showed Asia Times gruesome photos of what they claim were bodies of believers who died under state torture, which were returned to families for burial.

The US State Department has also weighed in. In its Religious Freedom Report, it criticizes the repression of “house Christians” including CAG.

Even so, Soryte says that the level of fear and persecution is underestimated. She cites the case of one CAG believer she met, who had hidden in a cellar without seeing daylight for six years.

Thousands of CAG members have fled abroad. Some leverage contacts in China to obtain passports, others travel on false documents, Soryte said. CAG members have made it to Canada, the EU, New Zealand, Taiwan, the United States – and South Korea.

Tomorrow: Part 2