|Type||Chinese Local Church movement|
|Classification||Christian new religious movement|
|Scripture||Christian Bible, The Word Appears in the Flesh|
|Administrative leader||Zhao Weishan|
|Region||People's Republic of China (original) |
India, South Korea, United States, Canada, Italy, France, Australia, and other countries (claimed)
|Branched from||The Shouters|
|Members||4 million (government estimate)|
|Other name(s)||The Church of Almighty God|
|Alternative Chinese name|
The Church of Almighty God[a] (simplified Chinese: 全能神教会; traditional Chinese: 全能神教會; pinyin: Quánnéng Shén Jiàohuì), also known as Eastern Lightning (simplified Chinese: 东方闪电; traditional Chinese: 東方閃電; pinyin: Dōngfāng Shǎndiàn, Hindi: सर्वशक्तिमान परमेश्वर की कलीसिया), is a monotheistic new religious movement established in China in 1991. Government sources estimate the group has three to four million members.
The group's core tenet is that Jesus Christ has returned to earth and is presently living as a Chinese woman. The name "Eastern Lightning" alludes to the Gospel of Matthew 24:27: "For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be."
The movement has been described by Chinese media as the nation's 'most dangerous cult', and the group has been formally banned in China since 1995. Christian opponents and international media have in turn described it as a cult and even as a "terrorist organization." In contrast, members of the group deny all accusations and argue they are victims of religious persecution at the hands of Chinese authorities.
Scholars who have tried to study the group have complained that, due to its "secretive" nature and the fact that in China it operates underground, researching Eastern Lightning is difficult, and media coverage is only partially reliable.
Two books on the group were published by Western academic presses. Brill published Lightning from the East by Emily Dunn in 2015, and Oxford University Press published Inside The Church of Almighty God by Massimo Introvigne in 2020. Holly Folk, a professor at Western Washington University, reported in 2020 that she is observing Eastern Lightning through a participant observation study since 2016.
Due to the growing influx of refugees from Eastern Lightning who seek asylum abroad, some national authorities have published reports on the group. In 2019, the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada published a compilation of its interviews with scholars about Eastern Lightning,. In the same year, the National Commission for the Right of Asylum of the Italian Ministry of the Interior published and shared with the other European Union countries through the European Asylum Support Office a report on "Persecution for religious reasons in China: Church of Almighty God."
|Administrative leader of The Church of Almighty God|
|Born||December 12, 1951|
Acheng District, Harbin, Heilongjiang, China
|Nationality||People's Republic of China|
A woman, whose name is never mentioned in the group's literature, but is believed to be Yang Xiangbin (b. 1973, simplified Chinese: 杨向彬; traditional Chinese: 楊向彬; pinyin: Yáng Xiàngbīn), started spreading in 1991 among Chinese house churches, most of them part of The Shouters, roneotyped texts with revelations she said were coming from the Holy Spirit. Chinese authorities state that Yang had a history of mental problems.
Zhao Weishan (simplified Chinese: 赵维山; traditional Chinese: 趙維山; pinyin: Zhào Wéishān; born December 12, 1951), a former physics teacher, had a history of membership in a variety of Christian new religious movements. In 1986, Zhao was a member of a Christian house church, and in 1987 he was baptized into a branch of The Shouters which venerated their leader Witness Lee as "Lord Changshou". Zhao rose to a leadership position within the group and, according to Chinese governmental sources, preached that he was himself the "Lord of Ability."
In 1989, the Shouters were labeled a xie jiao (commonly but erroneously translated to cult or evil cult) by the Chinese government and officially banned. In 1991, Zhao met Yang Xiangbin and quickly became the main leader of her small group, where he was recognized as "the Man used by the Holy Spirit." According to one estimate, by 1991, the organization had more than a thousand members. In 1992, Yang's revelations propagated by Zhao announced that Yang herself was more than a prophetic voice; in fact, she was the second coming of Jesus Christ on earth and the incarnated Almighty God. Since then, Yang was referred to as "he" rather than "she," as she was in fact regarded as Jesus Christ. Chinese media started taking an interest in the sect, and referred to Yang (sometimes also mentioned as "Deng"), as "the female Christ."
In 1995, the group was classified as a xie jiao by China's Ministry of Public Security. On September 6, 2000, both Zhao and Yang entered the United States; they were granted political asylum the following year. Since then, they live in and direct the movement from New York.
Eastern Lightning holds that Jesus has returned as a Chinese woman, worshiped by the sect as Almighty God, hence its official name. The group is non-Trinitarian, and teaches a form of millennialism. The group publishes the revelations of its female Almighty God; most of them are collected in The Word Appears in the Flesh (simplified Chinese: 话在肉身显现; traditional Chinese: 話在肉身顯現; pinyin: Huà zài ròushēn xiǎnxiàn). The group is anti-Communist, identifying the Great Red Dragon of the Book of Revelation with the Chinese Communist Party.
The Church describes human history as "God's six-thousand year management plan," divided in three stages: the Age of Law, when God as Jehovah guided Israel; the Age of Grace, when God as Jesus Christ saved humanity, but did not eradicate its sinful nature; and the Age of Kingdom, inaugurated in 1991, when God in his present incarnation as Almighty God reveals the fullness of truth and works to free humans from their sinfulness. Also, the group mentions a future Age of Millennial Kingdom, in which the earth will enter after the death of the present divine incarnation, and will be transformed into a kingdom of peace and joy.
According to sociologist Fenggang Yang, Eastern Lighting is organized hierarchically, with "inspectors" overseeing regional and subregional leaders, who in turn oversee the leaders of the local congregations. At the local and regional levels, leaders are elected by the members.
Members get together weekly (but not in a fixed day of the week) in what they call "fellowship meetings," in private homes in China and in "community houses," sometimes called "churches," abroad. There, they pray, read and discuss the revelations of Almighty God, sing hymns, hear sermons, and sometimes present artistic performances.
Eastern Lightning is banned in China and proselyting or organizing meetings on its behalf is a crime prosecuted under Article 300 of the Chinese Criminal Code. The United States Department of State in its Report on International Religious Freedom for the year 2018, published on June 21, 2019, reported claims that in 2018, Chinese “authorities arrested 11,111 of its [Eastern Lightning] members,” and “subjected 525 of its members to ‘torture or forced indoctrination,’” mentioning that some were "tortured to death while in custody". In its Report on International Religious Freedom for the year 2019, published on June 10, 2020, the same U.S. Department of State mentioned claims that in 2019, "at least 32,815 Church members were directly persecuted by authorities, compared with 23,567 in 2018," and "at least 19 Church members died as a result of abuse (20 in 2018)." The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom reported that “in 2018, the Chinese government harassed and arrested thousands of followers of [...] the Church of Almighty God. Many of those detained during the year  suffered torture and other abuses, in some cases resulting in deaths or unexplained disappearances while in custody."
Eastern Lightning has been described by Chinese media as the nation's "most dangerous cult". The group has been accused of ties to violence. In 2020, an article published in The Daily Beast by veteran reporter Donald Kirk found that Western scholars who have written about Eastern Lightning tend to support the sect's position that it has been unfairly accused. Kirk reported the opinion by the American scholar Holly Folk that, "Once you examine the track record, you realize none of the accusations are true... You see the exact same move by the Chinese government against the Falun Gong.”
In 2002, The Church of Almighty God was accused of staging a campaign of simultaneous kidnappings across multiple cities to capture thirty-four leaders of the China Gospel Fellowship (CGF). Eastern Lightning denied the accusations, and scholar Emily Dunn concluded in her 2015 book that rogue members of the sect, acting without the approval of the leaders, might have been responsible for the incident, writing that, "While Eastern Lightning’s leadership evidently does not condone the use of violence, it may be unable to impress this upon some followers." Massimo Introvigne in his book published in 2020 suggested that China Gospel Fellowship members described as "kidnapping" what was in fact "deception," as they were invited, and went (voluntarily, according to Introvigne), to training sessions without being told that they were organized by Eastern Lightning.
Some members of Eastern Lightning embraced the so called Mayan prophecy and predicted the end of the world for 2012. The authorities accused them of causing riots and even crimes around China. According to Emily Dunn, the 2012 predictions were accepted by some sect members "without sanctions from [Eastern Lightning] authorities," who pointed out that in their theology there is no end of the world, and reprimanded and even expelled members who insisted in spreading the Mayan prophecy. Immediately prior to the supposed doomsday date of December 21, 2012, the Chinese government arrested 400 members of Eastern Lightning in central China, and as many as 1000 from other provinces of China. Chinese authorities also claimed that a certain Min Yongjun, who stabbed an elderly woman and 23 students at a school in Henan province, was motivated by the 2012 prophecies, and after the incident occurred pointed out that Eastern Lightning members were among those propagating these prophecies.
See also: Murder of Wu Shuoyan
Wu Shuoyan (1977–2014), a 37-year-old woman who worked as a salesperson in a nearby clothing store, was waiting after work to meet her husband and seven-year-old son in the mall McDonald's. While Wu was there, a group of six persons (including a 12-year-old), entered the restaurant. They announced that they were "missionaries." After presenting their religious message, they demanded that customers supply their cell phone numbers for future contacts. Wu was twice asked to provide her phone number. She refused.
Wu was then beaten by two of the "missionaries", who used mops the group had brought with them. A chair was thrown at Wu, and her head and face were stomped. One attacker screamed "Go die! Evil spirit!" while another shouted at customers: “Whoever interferes will die!". The attack was captured on camera, with footage widely shared online. Wu died from her injuries at the scene.
The attackers were arrested and identified by the government as members of Eastern Lightning. Representatives from Eastern Lightning publicly condemned the murder, claiming it had been committed by "psychopaths" who had nothing to do with them. In the wake of the murder, authorities in China engaged in widespread arrests of Eastern Lightning's members. The five adult attackers were found guilty at trial, with two of the murderers being executed for their role in 2015.
Following the attack, Church of Almighty God members responsible for the church's website accused the Chinese government of wrongly blaming the religious movement as a pretext for persecution.:9 Zhang Lidong, one of the killers, testified at trial that he was no longer involved with The Church of Almighty God and had started his own sect.:9
Covering the trial and the confessions of the accused assassins, reporters for the Chinese daily The Beijing News wrote that the perpetrators were in fact not members of Eastern Lightning at the time of the murder: they recognized as the living incarnation of God, rather than Yang Xiangbin, their own two female leaders, regarded as one divine soul in two bodies, and claimed that Eastern Lightning was a cult while theirs was a legitimate religious group. Some Western scholars who wrote about Eastern Lightning also concluded that the perpetrators at the time of the murder were members of a group different from Eastern Lightning. In 2017, Chinese authorities announced that two of the assassins had been successfully “re-educated” in jail. Although they maintained that theirs was a group based on the belief that the two female leaders of their movement, not Yang Xiangbin, were the real Almighty God, they also blamed books and Web sites of Eastern Lightning for having “ideologically corrupted” them in their youth.
In weeks before the 2019 Israeli election, as reported by BuzzFeed, Twitter suspended dozens of Hebrew-language accounts run in The Church of Almighty God's name that were amplifying right-wing religious and political messages. The BuzzFeed article reported the opinion of Holly Folk, that the political activity was "outside the pattern of CAG’s [Church of Almighty God's] typical behavior," and the accounts might have been created by Chinese agencies to discredit Eastern Lightning.