More than 2,000 believers from a Chinese religious movement known as the Church of the Almighty God are have applied for political asylum in several EU countries after claiming that they’ve been subjected to “severe persecution” at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party, according to the group’s annual report which is said to contain details that shed light on the methods used by Beijing’s security services during the crackdown.

The church’s report indicates that all religious groups in China – including Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and Taoists – are facing levels of persecuted that have not been seen since the times of Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution.

Stridently anti-Communist, the Church of the Almighty God is a relatively new entity in China having only been established in 1991. Though it remains an underground movement, the religious group counts itself as the largest millenarianist religious organisation in China. Somewhat controversial for its core beliefs, which have led some to brand the group ‘a cult’, members of the Church of Almighty God believe that the incarnate Almighty is a Chinese woman.

Both the person the Church worships as Almighty God and the group’s main administrative leader, Zhao Weishan, have lived in exile in the United States for several years, where they have been granted asylum in 2001.

Though subject to the same level of persecution and suspicion by China’s Communist  authorities, The Church of Almighty God, or Eastern Lightning as it is also known, has been accused in the past of isolating members from friends and families, of pressuring them to donate money and even of having murdered a woman in a McDonald’s diner in Shandong province in 2014.

Western scholars who have studied the Church have dismissed these accusations as outright falsifications. In particular, studies of the transcript of the trial have proved that the McDonald’s assassins belonged to a different, smaller religious movement.

The group has argued that is is being deliberately targeted by China’s intelligence services solely because it is an indigenous religious group who claims to have roughly 4 million members spread across the country. 

Their plight appears to have worsened in recent weeks after the MSS, China’s spy agency, began to implement the new “regulations on religious affairs” provision that was handed down by the hardline ideologues in the Communist Party on 1 February, a mandate that some argue appears aimed at “completely banning religious beliefs” in China.

The Church of Almighty God was banned by the Chinese authorities in 1995. Since then, according to the church’s internal report from 2018, at least 23,567 Church of Almighty God members were directly targeted by the authorities.

The security services, according to the report, have subjected Church of Almighty God members throughout China to bouts of harassment, including having their personal information collected, being forced to sign a “statement of guarantee” which would mean renouncing their faith, and being forced to be photographed, recorded on video and monitored, and having their fingerprints or blood samples and hair collected.

At least 11,111 members have been arrested, including 6,757 members who are being held in detention either for indefinite periods of time. The report says 685 of those who are in custody have been subjected to “all manners of cruel torture and forced indoctrination” while 392 members have been sentenced, more than half of which are sentences of at least three years.

The report says at least 20 Church of Almighty God followers have died as a result of the current crackdown and at least $44 million has been unlawfully seized, including both church money and personal assets, by the authorities. The report says the statistics represent “just a small portion” of the information concerning Beijing’s persecution of minority religions.

The authorities are reported to have launched a large-scale crackdown on the Church of Almighty God in Sichuan Province from July to October 2018 where more than $788,450 of personal and church assets were seized and 377 of the church’s members were arrested, 90 of which are still in custody but their whereabouts remain unknown.

A similar scenario played out in Zhejiang Province where the mass arrest of at least 521 Church of Almighty God members allegedly occurred in a single day. Hundreds of others are believed to have been arrested across China, with most of the charges being bro was reported that the majority of Christians arrested during this operation had been detained by the authorities because of their belief in God or having applied for passports in recent years.

Personal accounts of the arrests include that of Lu Yongfeng, an elderly woman who lived in Chaoyang City in Liaoning Province. She joined the Church of Almighty God in 1999 and died in July of last year after law enforcement officials located and arrested her and her husband, Zou Jixue, after locating the signal on her mobile phone.

“They then forcibly took Lu to the Chaoyang Public Security Bureau for detainment and interrogation. The morning of 2 July, Zou was taken by police officers to the Beipiao No. 2 People’s Hospital ICU where he saw his wife, who had already stopped breathing, but the doctors were merely pretending to give her emergency treatment.”

Zou is believed to have then been forced to sign his name and put his thumbprint on an unnamed document by the same security forces that have been looking for his daughter, Zou Demei, who was once a Church of Almighty god leader in charge of four regions. She was designated by the Communist authorities as a wanted criminal and had to flee to the United States.”

A number of well-known NGOs, including Brussels-based Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF), have highlighted the family’s plight.

“All religions and all churches, not just the Church of the Almighty God, are now persecuted in China. In the last few years, an increasing number of its members, who are being persecuted by the Chinese Communist Party, have been knocking on the doors of several EU countries and requesting their protection. Unfortunately, they have been denied political asylum. As of 1 January, France, Belgium, The Netherlands, and Germany have the highest number of rejections.” Willy Fautre, the director of HRWF, told New Europe. “The main reason is that the state institutions in charge of the requests for asylum are unaware of the magnitude and intensity of the religious persecution in China and are ignorant about the Church of Almighty God, or are misled by the anti-religious propaganda and the fake news spread around the world by the Chinese authorities.”

This content is part of the ‘Religious Freedom’ section supported by the Faith and Freedom Summit Coalition