Aug 26, 2014

China tries cult members for murder at McDonald's

Calum MacLeod
August 21, 2014

BEIJING — Five members of a banned Chinese Christian cult stood trial Thursday on charges they murdered a woman at a McDonald's restaurant in east China because she refused to give them her telephone number as they tried to recruit her into the Church of Almighty God.

The case has shocked China ever since footage and images of the May 28 attack at a McDonald's in Zhaoyuan city, in east Shandong province, went viral online. Chinese prosecutors say the five accused used chairs and a metal mop handle to beat to death Wu Shuoyan, 37, a patron at the restaurant.

Although diners at the restaurant filmed and photographed the attack, none intervened to prevent Wu's murder.

In an interview from detention aired by state broadcaster CCTV, Zhang Lidong, a member of The Church of Almighty God, expressed no remorse and called Wu a "monster" and "evil spirit."

The case highlights the fast spread of heretic cults in China despite government efforts to control the religious activities of citizens and restrict them to five officially approved faiths: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism.

While underground or "house" churches are sometimes tolerated, officials have cracked down harshly on several groups it labels dangerous "cults," including the Falungong spiritual movement banned in the late 1990s. Members of that group have alleged widespread torture of detained believers.

The Church of Almighty God, also called Eastern Lightning, is among 14 groups that China has listed as outlawed cults. It originated in central Henan province, and claims that Jesus was resurrected as a middle-aged Chinese woman, the wife of the sect's founder, who now lives in New York's Chinatown. The pair fled to the USA in 2000.

Since June, Chinese police have arrested nearly 1,000 suspected members of the cult, who are allegedly involved in over 500 cases and include almost 100 "high-level organizers and backbone members," China's Ministry of Public Security said this week.

The cult "cheats people, illegally collects money and violates the law under the guise of religion. A series of acts by its members have harmed people's lives and property and disrupted social stability," the ministry said, according to the state news agency Xinhua.

A website that appeared to represent the views of the group denied involvement in Wu's death, saying reports were seeking to discredit the Church of Almighty God.

Some of the proceedings of the trial in Yantai, Shandong province, were posted Thursday on the court's official micro-blog account. The trial, which involves charges on cult-related offenses as well as the murder charge, may conclude quickly but pronounce sentence after a few weeks, as is common in China. Controlled by the ruling Communist Party, China's courts almost always reach guilty verdicts in criminal cases.

The lawyer for the victim's family, Gao Cheng, said they seek the death penalty for the accused, and $650,000 in compensation, reported the Legal Evening News paper. However, Wu's husband, Jin Zhongqing, worries that if the five are given death sentences, then other cult members will target her relatives as "enemies," Jin's uncle Lu Xueyi told The Paper, a news website under the Shanghai News Group.

Online, many Chinese called for the harshest penalty.

"If they can't give these five people the death sentence, then the law to me is just a scrap of paper," Cheng Haoxi, a writer based in Hangzhou, posted on the Sina Weibo micro-blogging service.

"The difference between a cult and a religion is its attitude towards life," wrote Mu Huaidong, the Imam of Beijing's Deshengmen Mosque. "A cult disregards human life, a religion loves life."

Contributing: Sunny Yang