Shi Xinwang’s jaw clenched with emotion as he described how he recently discovered that his wife of six years was a secret member of “Eastern Lightning,” one of China’s largest doomsday cults.

In his parents’ freezing bedroom cellar in their home in an impoverished village in central China, the young man held up a video on his cellphone of their 5-year-old daughter in happier times, dancing and performing for his wife, Xiaowei.

“At first I thought she was just a normal Christian, but from the Internet I soon learned that Eastern Lightning is a dangerous cult,” Shi said. “In recent days, she has told me to withdraw all our money and prepare to beg for Almighty God’s mercy because the world will end on Friday.”

In desperation, he has secretly informed on her to the Chinese authorities. A nationwide crackdown has so far led to the arrests of some 1,000 followers of the quasi-Christian group, which also calls itself the Church of Almighty God.

Eastern Lightning, one of China’s most aggressive millenarian sects, believes that Christ has been reincarnated as a woman in central China and is on a mission to lead the faithful in a decisive battle to slay the “great red dragon” of the ruling Communist Party.

Current and former Eastern Lightning adherents told the Financial Times this week that the group has adopted a theory popularized in the Hollywood film “2012” that says an ancient Mayan calendar predicted doomsday would fall this Friday, Dec. 21, 2012.

Believers expect three days of complete darkness, followed by 72 days of natural disasters, starting Jan. 1, that will devastate Earth and wipe out all nonbelievers, whom adherents refer to among themselves as “snakes” and “demons.”

Adherents direct recruitment efforts at disenfranchised groups in China’s poorest rural areas, including underground Christian “house churches” deemed illegal by the government and official state-sanctioned Catholic and Protestant congregations.

“The pastor gave a sermon on Sunday to warn us all about this evil cult,” said Han Xiuting, 81, an administrator at the officially sanctioned North Protestant Church of Handan, the closest city to the area where Shi’s wife has been trying to harvest souls in preparation for Friday’s Armageddon. “After the service, we gathered together and burned some of [Eastern Lightning’s] pamphlets.”

In response to a reporter’s questions, Eastern Lightning denied it was a cult and said it was being persecuted by the Communist Party.

Eastern Lightning claims to have millions of followers throughout the country. The government and other Christian groups put their numbers at close to 1 million.

Shi estimates that about 10 percent of the 2,000 people living in his village, in a poor and desolate region of Hebei province, are members of Eastern Lighting or in the process of being converted to it. It is hard to know, he said, because followers know each other only by code names like “Strong as Steel” and “Seeker.”

“China’s modernization has been so fast, and the government has ignored people’s need for spiritual fulfillment,” Shi said. He added that his wife was happy and content when they moved to Beijing in 2006 in search of a better life and only rejoined the cult when she returned to their home village to look after her aging father, who is also an Eastern Lightning devotee.

To aid in their proselytizing, Eastern Lightning’s songs are set to the tune of Communist anthems such as “The Internationale,” and the group allegedly provides small loans or even sexual favors as inducements to prospective members. The group is also accused of kidnapping and torture, according to government officials in charge of infiltrating its ranks.

“This religion is extremely hard to smash because they often only have single points of contact between separate levels,” said one 33-year-old Eastern Lightning cadre in the eastern city of Jinan who is also a spy for the Chinese police. “It’s actually very similar to the Communist Party during its underground revolutionary phase” before 1949.

“It’s also a bit like pyramid selling,” he added. “The more people you recruit and the more money you give to the church, the higher your status will be in heaven. If you don’t donate, you don’t have a chance for promotion in this life, either.”

Eastern Lightning representatives deny that their organization is a cult and say they are being persecuted by the Chinese government.

In recent weeks there have been sporadic protests by groups of believers in remote parts of the country calling on people to offer themselves up for salvation and taunting the Communist Party that it is about to be wiped out by God’s wrath.

The party is especially sensitive because of China’s long history of millenarianism, going back centuries to the advent of the White Lotus Sect of Buddhism in or around the 13th century.

The Taiping Rebellion — a quasi-Christian uprising in the mid-19th century led by a man who believed he was the younger brother of Jesus – captured most of southern China during a civil war that remains the bloodiest in history, with as many as 30 million killed.

More recently, Beijing launched a vicious crackdown in 1999 on the Falun Gong spiritual movement in which thousands of adherents have been tortured and imprisoned.

Eastern Lightning was founded in the early 1990s in central China’s overpopulated and dirt-poor Henan province by Zhao Weishan, a former member of the radical Christian “shouters” sect from northeastern China. Zhao claimed to have discovered the living female Christ and told followers to throw away the Bible.

Zhao fled to the United States more than a decade ago, where he was given asylum on the grounds of religious persecution, and he is thought to live somewhere in New York or New Jersey.

The government has launched numerous attacks on the group since it was designated a cult in 2000, but as with many apocalyptic movements, government persecution is seen as further evidence that the end of days is at hand.

“They believe that any hardship they experience is a test from God, and so the more we crack down on them, the more they believe in this cult,” said an official from the Communist Party’s shadowy and extrajudicial “610 office,” so named for the date it was established (June 10, 1999) to lead the attack on Falun Gong. The office is now in charge of all “anti-cult” operations in China.

Although they also view Eastern Lightning as a dangerous cult, some Christian activist groups outside China are concerned that the latest arrests of adherents could mark the beginning of a wider campaign against underground Christian churches.

Others argue that Beijing’s sweeping restrictions on all forms of religion actually encourage the emergence of more radical groups.

Shi said he plans to offer his wife an ultimatum Saturday, once her doomsday prediction is proved wrong. “If nothing happens on December 21, then I will tell her she has to quit,” he said. “And if she won’t, I’ll move back to Beijing with our daughter. She will go to jail.”

— Financial Times

Gu Yu contributed to this report.