BEIJING — Five people went on trial Thursday in China on charges of beating a woman to death in a McDonald’s restaurant after unsuccessfully trying to recruit her to join their Christian cult.
They allegedly belong to the Church of Almighty God, also known as Eastern Lightning, a group that claims to have millions of members here and believes that God has returned to Earth in China in the form of a female Christ.
The five are accused of trying to recruit the woman in a McDonald’s restaurant in the eastern city of Zhaoyuan on the evening of May 28. When she refused to give them her phone number, prosecutors charge, they beat her to death with chairs, a mop and, when the mop broke, its metal handle. Footage of the attack from closed-circuit television cameras and video taken by other diners went viral at the time.
The man accused of wielding the mop handle is 54-year-old Zhang Lidong. He allegedly was joined in the attack by his 29- and 18-year-old daughters, his 12-year-old son and two other women, Chinese state media reported. The son, who is below the age of criminal responsibility in China, will be dealt with separately.
Zhang, a former businessman who had reportedly arrived at the restaurant in a luxury Porsche Cayenne car, later confessed in an interview on state television but appeared unrepentant.
“My daughter said you could just tell she was not a good person,” he said in the interview, referring to the victim. “She was a demon, the evil spirit. We had to beat her to death.”
The woman, a 35-year-old mother of a 7-year-old boy, was waiting for her husband at the restaurant when she was approached by the group, state media reported. At 9:17 p.m., she sent a message on the WeChat social media service saying she had met “some crazy people.” According to surveillance camera footage, the quarrel began at 9:18 p.m., and the police arrived a few minutes later, but the woman was pronounced dead outside a hospital at 9:45 p.m.
The official microblog of the court in Yantai carried pictures of the five, handcuffed and dressed in orange jackets, standing in the courtroom in front of microphone stands. About a dozen police officers stood behind them.
The defendants denied the charges. The trial lasted eight hours, but no verdict was immediately announced.
Eastern Lightning is believed to have been formed in the early 1990s in China’s central Henan province by a man named Zhao Weishan. According to the official Xinhua news agency, Zhao claimed Jesus had been resurrected as his wife, Yang Xiangbin, but the couple fled to the United States in September 2000.
Taking its name from a passage in the biblical Gospel of Matthew that refers to lightning in the east and the second coming of Christ, it was identified by the Chinese government as an illegal cult in 1995 but still continued to recruit heavily, especially in rural areas.
Chinese authorities arrested more than 1,300 members of the cult in December 2012, accusing them of tricking people into give up all their money by spreading rumors that the world was about to end. Since the killing in the McDonald’s, 1,000 more members have been arrested, Xinhua reported.
Claiming persecution by the authorities, the group refers to the Communist Party as the “great red dragon,” an embodiment of Satan and a reference to the biblical Book of Revelation. Its Web site describes China as “a fortress of demons and a prison controlled by the devil.”
The group has also been accused of kidnapping people in attempts to convert them. Dozens of online chat groups, each with hundreds of members, have been set up by relatives of Eastern Lightning members. They share stories describing how the church has destroyed their families or about their efforts to find loved ones who have left home after joining the group.
China’s Communist Party aims to exercise strict control over religious practice, but it has struggled to contain grass-roots Christian or Buddhist movements, most famously the Falun Gong meditation movement that attracted millions of adherents before being brutally repressed in 1999.
Xuyang Jingjing contributed to this report.