Christians across the world are eagerly awaiting the return of Jesus Christ – apart from one sub-sect whose members believe the Messiah is already back Earth – in the form of a middle-aged Chinese woman.
Eastern Lightning, also known as The Church of Almighty God, was established in China in 1991 and has somewhere between three and four million members.
Their key belief is that Jesus has been reincarnated as a Chinese woman, who although never named in their literature is believed to be Yang Xiangbin – also known as Deng. She also happens to be the girlfriend of the sect’s founder, Zhao Weishan.
The church’s official origin story reads: “In 1991, a sister in the church was moved by and received word from the Holy Spirit, and testified to ‘God’s name’ and ‘God’s arrival.’
"Everyone was excited, but did not understand what was going on. Then Christ began to speak, issuing forth talks one after the other. People were passing them around and felt they were the words of the Holy Spirit, and surely from God.”
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Local media has labelled the group as “China’s most dangerous cult”, and the Communist government formally banned it in 1995 as a xie jiao (evil cult).
But is Eastern Lightning really a dangerous cult, or are its members just victim of persecution by the Chinese state?
Due to its political status, information about Eastern Lighting’s structure and traditions are hard to come by, but what is out there paints an unsettling picture.
Christianity Today spoke to university scholars who had spent years of researching and interviewing church members then claimed the group uses violence, coercion and intimidation to recruit and keep their congregation.
They said people had been forced to abandon their families and belongings, and that the group particularly preys on lone women and members of ‘house churches’, which are illegal meeting groups of around 25 people found across China.
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Emily Dunn told CNN: “People are encouraged to door-knock, to pressure everyone they know to join the group. They send out evangelists throughout China. Their message is that if you don't join, you're more likely to go to hell or perhaps drop dead from cancer or God's judgment in some other form."
These converted women often suddenly up sticks and walk away from their husbands and kids without a second thought.
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An investigation by Sixth Tone spoke to a man whose wife abandoned their 21 year marriage, leaving him just a note.
Before it was confiscated by police he took a photo of it. It read: “Please tell your grandmother and your dad that, because the circumstances are evil, I’m leaving for now to hide from the circumstances. When the circumstances get better I’ll return. Don’t look for me, it will be a waste of money. Don’t call the police. If anyone asks, tell them I don’t believe in God anymore, and that I’m away making money.”
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Despite the CCP branding them an “evil force” and the horror stories surrounding the group’s strong arm tactics to recruit new members, Eastern Lightning’s popularity grew as the nineties ebbed towards the millennium, with believers expecting armageddon, and for Deng to take her place on God’s throne for Judgment Day as the world came to an end.
That didn’t happen, but it also didn’t signal the end of the group.
In 2002 Eastern Lightning kidnapped 34 members of a Protestant house church network and held them against their will for two weeks in an attempt to convert them.
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Ten years later, one thousand members were arrested by the Chinese government accused of publicly proclaiming that the world would end on December 21, in accordance with ancient Mayan prophecy.
In 2014 a woman was bludgeoned to death in a Hong Kong branch of McDonald’s after she refused to give her number to a group of six people believed to be recruiting new members.
Two of the killers, father and daughter duo Zhang Lidong and Zhang Fan were executed after CCP official’s successfully requested use of the death penalty by the Supreme People's Court.
Lidong told local news that he did kill the woman, but he was unrepentant, saying: "She was a demon. She was an evil spirit."
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The founders of Eastern Light fled China for New York as persecuted refugees, a route that many other believers have taken.
There are substantial numbers of church members in Korea and Taiwan, and there have also been instances of Eastern Light members claiming asylum in the UK.
If they are forced to return to China, members claim they will be imprisoned, or put to death for their beliefs.
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