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Leading members of a branch of the "Almighty God" cult in Northeast China are on trial in Daqing, Heilongjiang province, a police source said on Sunday.

They were detained in June 2017.

"Almighty God", known in Chinese as Quannengshen, grabbed national headlines in May 2014 when videos went viral showing five of its members beating a woman to death at a McDonald"s restaurant in Zhaoyuan, Shandong province, condemning her as an "evil spirit" when she refused to give them her mobile phone number for recruitment purposes.

"The Almighty God cult has been predominantly violent," said Huang Chao, managing director of the international research center on cult issues at Wuhan University in Hubei province.

According to Huang, police have processed more than 100 violent incidents initiated by cult members across the country. On more than 30 occasions, they violently resisted law enforcement.

"In 2012, some cult members attacked police stations, damaged vehicles and injured officers," he said.

The mastermind

According to a police source, the cult was founded by a man named Zhao Weishan, born in 1951, who had also founded and participated in several cult organizations in the 1980s.

In 1993, Zhao began claiming that his mistress, Yang Xiangbin, was an almighty goddess and "female Jesus", and he himself was the "high priest".

Zhao and Yang both fled to the United States in 2000.

"He was an ordinary man, not different from others," said Zhao"s ex-wife.

"He was smart but not in the right way," said his older sister.

The Almighty God cult borrowed some ideas from Christianity, such as the second coming of Jesus, but altered core Christian doctrines, Huang Chao said.

The cult has engaged in illegal activities in the guise of Christianity, said Lyu Dezhi, head of Heilongjiang Theological Seminary.

Vulnerable targeted

According to the police, the cult mostly recruits less-educated women who have family problems and at first lures them with mainstream Christian teachings before introducing them to the cult ideology.

"In the beginning, new recruits were not forced to donate or attend gatherings, but after becoming a convert they were manipulated into leaving their family and devoting everything to the cult," said a Heilongjiang police officer who investigated the case and asked to remain anonymous.

Cult members were banned from using mobile phones, watching TV and even reading fiction books. They were only allowed to read what were called God"s books and to watch videos designed for brainwashing.

Hundreds of ordinary people set up groups on social networks such as WeChat and QQ to look for missing family members who had joined the cult.

A woman surnamed Song from Anhui province has not seen her mother since 2014. The mother, once an upbeat and kind person, started to believe in Almighty God and the apocalypse that was supposed to happen in 2012.

"When she went missing, I was about to give birth. How indifferent she became that she chose to leave home at that time," Song said through tears.

Financial exploitation

"Followers should be devoted to Almighty God - in plain words, donating money to the organization. The more you donate, the closer you are to God," said a former convert surnamed Zhang.

Only a fraction of donations are used in the daily operations of the organization. Most of the money was transferred abroad, said Zhang, who used to handle the cash transfers.

Low-ranking followers lived a frugal life, often collecting leftover vegetables from the market. Some of the older female members would save bus fare by walking or riding bikes.

Zhao, the cult"s founder, lives a luxury life in expensive villas in the United States, commanding the money flow from China.

According to a document seized by the police, about 140 million yuan ($20.4 million) was transferred abroad from Northeast China from November 2016 to March 2017.

"The cult taught me to be indifferent to my family and to be nonhuman," an anonymous former convert said. "All I want now is to stay with my family and make up for the pain I brought them."

To prevent the spread of the cult, it is important to raise awareness and improve education among the people, Huang Chao said. The police also called for efforts by the public to root out the source of the cult.



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