Religion in China - Part 2

(Phoenix Weekly)  An Underground Church and 16 Murders.  By Deng Fei.  April 15, 2006.  Issue No. 216 (2006 issue no. 11).    See Part 2 and Part 3.

(in translation)

On February 28, 2006, at the Middle People's Court of Shenyashan city, Heilongjiang province, seven armed police officer in camouflage uniforms were spread out in star-shaped formation at the courthouse entrance with sub-machine guns in their hands pointed skywards.  A large group of police officers set up barricades along the 300 meter long street.  Ordinary vehicular traffic was not allowed to go through.

An underground church know as the Three Grades of Servants was going to hear the verdicts in a trial for murders.  The principal character Xu Wenku and his disciples were accused of committing sixteen crimes and killing as many as twenty people belonging to another underground church known as the Eastern Lightning sect.  Xu and his disciples were also accused of obtaining more than 20 million RMB by fraudulent means.  If found guilty, these criminal suspects may receive a maximum of the death sentence.

According to the information about these underground churches, the Three Grades of Servants was developed by Xu Wenku.  They claimed to be Christians and they firmly adhere to the truth of the complete Bible.  In 1999 and 2000, the Three Grades of Servants was pronounced twice as an evil cult by the Ministry of Public Security.

The other underground church Eastern Lightning was founded by a Henan female named Zheng.  She claimed to be the female Christ who is the reincarnation of Jesus Christ in China and therefore the "lightning of the East."  In 2001, Eastern Lightning was also pronounced to be an evil cult by the Chinese Ministry of Public Security.

The case began in 2004.  Two elementary school students in Chaoyang village, Baoqing county, Heilongjiang province discovered a female corpse.  The local police identified the deceased as Zhang Cuiping.  After an investigation, the police found out that Zhang used to be a member of the Three Grades of Servants but went over to Eastern Lightning.  This infuriated Xu Wenku, who arranged for his underlings Zhang Min and Zhu Lixin to collect photographs of Zhang Cuiping as well as other information such as home address and so on.  They tried to educate Zhang Cuiping.

According to the indictment, Zhu Lixin went to Baoqing county in person and arranged for local believers Ben and Ma to conduct surveillance on Zhang Cuiping.  On January 27, 2004, Xu Wenku, Zhang Min and Zhu Lixin were in Yichun city, Heilongjiang province and they received information that Zhang Min has returned home.  Xu instructed: "You should educate her.  If she does not come back (meaning to the Three Grades of Servants), then you dispose her."

Zhu then instructed the individuals Liu and Ben to drive a van from Harbin city to Jiamusi city to pick up the individual Wang who had hurried over from Yichun city.  The three then headed to Shuangya city.  The three were ordered to act as if they were the police in order to be able to detain Zhang Cuiping.

On January 28, the three of them checked into a Baoqing county hotel and then made their plan.  On the morning of the next day, the three of them bought three pairs of sunglasses, three batons, two fake guns plus steel wires, pliers, gloves, yellow tape and work identification cards.  At 7pm, they went to the Zhang home.  Wang climbed up the telephone pole and used the pliers to cut off the Zhang family telephone line.  Then Wang and Liu posed as police officers from the Shuangya city public security bureau, took Zhang out and then killed her.  The body was then buried in the snow by the north side bridge of Lixin village, Chaoyang town, Baoqing county.

"Following this line of inquiry, we discovered that this case was connected to a series of major murder cases across the county.  It was shocking," said a police officer with the Shuangya city public security bureau.  The case details were reported to the National Ministry of Public Security and received high attention.  This was listed as the top case in 2004 for the Ministry of Public Security and assigned the project codename of "Thunderbolt 1." 

According to the indictment document numbered 2006(1), during the mid 1980's, Xu Wenku and Li Maoqing established the Three Grades of Servants.  Soon, large numbers of faithful joined and this became a well-organized group.  After 1999, the Three Grades of Servants began to lose members, with some of them going over to Eastern Lightning.  To fight for believers, the Three Grades of Servants began a series of revenge actions against Eastern Lightning for more than two years.  

The New York Times had previously reported that Eastern Lightning and the Three Grades of Servants fought vigorously for believers in northeastern China.  In Huaide county, Jilin province, the Eastern Lightning believers were ordered to convert a number of members from other sects within a certain deadline.  The Three Grades of Servants believers Xu Xiaopoing and spouse encountered an annoying barrage of conversion pitches.

A peasant named Zhang Chengli was the person responsible for converting Kuang Yuxia and spouse.  Zhang went to their home and he followed them into the fields.  In the middle of one night, he even stood outside their bedroom and used a loudspeaker to shout: "Change your faith or else you will die!"

In order to stop Zhang Chengli, Kuang doused him with dirty water.  Kuang's husband assaulted him and used a metal pipe to ruin his bicycle.  But Zhang was persistent.  Finally, Zhang was tied up, throw into a small white truck and taken away.  Later, someone found his body, which was eyeless, noseless and earless.

Phoenix Weekly did not find the case of Zhang Chengli in the indictment document.  The document indicated that the first case took place in 2002 when several believers in Heze city, Shandong province, kidnapped two Eastern Lightning male preachers in Minquan county, Henan province, and took them to a basement in Cao county, Shandong province.  Three days later, the two people were buried alive in the lotus field of the Jiao family at the border of Henan and Shandong provinces.

The indictment document claimed that Xu Wenku indicated on multiple occasions with multiple methods to his organization that Eastern Lightning is the enemy and the Devil, and he instructed and suggested to his believers to detain, harm and kill Eastern Lightning believers.  There were sixteen cases across the country, in which 20 Eastern Lightning believers were killed.

The Shuangya city procuratorate's other indictment against the principals of the Three Grades of Servants was that Xu Wenku, Li Maoqing and Zhang Min organized and led the believers to think that Xu was the representative of God and used the name of God to deceive and defraud people around the country.

The indictment document claimed that Xu Wenku and others obtained 20.5 million RMB by fraud across the country.

Xu's defense lawyer Li Huoping claimed in the defense statement that Xu established a religious organization in which the believers followed the instructions in the Bible.  To follow the dictates of the heart and voluntarily offer a part of their income to God is a religious act.  Therefore, this was a contribution and not an act of fraud.  Li Maoqing's defense lawyer Wei Rujiu claimed that if the Ministry of Justice regards a contributed sum as a criminal act of fraud, then all other Chinese churches which accept contributions in the same way should face the same charges.

A religious sector person said that the Three Grades of Servants is an illegal organization and is not qualified to accept contributions from society.  Therefore, this group should be compared to legal religious churches.

The procuratorate pointed out that Xu Wenku's brother-in-law Zhang Linke had been in charge of 10 million RMB, his chauffeur Han Wei had been in charge of 6 million RMB and his female personal assistant Wang Yang had been in charge of 3 million RMB.  Xu Wenku had purchased a Benz, a Passat, two luxurious homes and up-scale products worth more than 3 million RMB.  His gold Rolex watch alone cost nearly 200,000 RM and a pair of glasses cost 10,000 RMB.

On March 6, 2006, Xu Wenku's daughter Xu Baiyin was interviewed exclusively by Phoenix Weekly.  She claimed that her father did not realize that the watch that he was wearing was an expensive Rolex watch, which was purchased on his behalf by her father's chauffeur.  She said that she and her mother live in her grandfather's house and she is not clear about this business of her father buying cars, houses and so on.

Ha Wei spent more than 700,000 RMB to buy BMW sports car and other high-priced items for Wang Yang.  In return, Wang Yang also bought watches, platinum rings and other high-priced items.  The two spent more than 600,000 RMB in travel expenses.

There is also a considerable amount of money of the church involved in commercial investments across the county.  The Shuangya city police claimed that they found out that the Three Grades of Servants have 20 enterprises such as auto repair shops, print shops, restaurants, clothing shops and travel agencies in Harbin, Yichun and Beijing worth 5.8 million RMB.

According to an informed person, Xu seemed more like a mature entrepreneur in being able to arrange certain honest and skilled believe to engage in commercial activities.  The vast number of believers work hard and live Spartan lives in order to hand over their created income so that the Three Grades of Servants accumulated a large amount of wealth.

"They will not stuff their own pockets.  Every one of them knows that all the profits belongs to the church and to God," said Xu Baiyin.

The family members of Xu assumed major posts in the church.  Xu's young sister Xu Lingyu and her husband Zhang Linke are major figures in the commercial operational network of the Three Grades of Servants.  From 1991, Zhang was ordered to set up commercial enterprises across the county and he is in charge of more than 10 million RMB in capital.

An official with the Shuangya city police said that according to the "Notice from the Ministry of Public Security about defining and eradicating evil cult organizations: all the money of the evil cult organization as well as the materials and tools used in its activities will be tracked down and confiscated.  Thus, the donations and commercial income of the Three Grades of Servants will be confiscated in accordance with the law.

Verdicts on the multiple charges against Xu Wenku and others were not immediately available after the trial.  There is still now verdict up until the deadline of this Phoenix Weekly article.

On February 28, 2006, the Shuangya city police and propaganda department declined to be interviewed by Phoenix Weekly.  A police officer who was maintaining order near the courthouse told our reporter: "I don't know about religion.  If they murdered people, they should be punished by law.  If we did not solve this case, who knows how many more people will be brutally murdered?"

Xu Wenku's defense lawyers claimed in the defense statement that Xu was being charged with overall authorization of the series of murders in the case.  The evidence is based upon the testimonies of the co-defendants in the case, and there is no other supporting evidence.  During the court session, Xu Wenku and Li Maoqing reversed their previous testimonies.  They denied instructing the believers to commit murder and they claimed to have been tortured during interrogation.  During the court proceedings, the only person who could concretely claim that Xu and Li ordered "disposing people" was just Zhang Min alone, and so the lone piece of evidence is inadequate as the basis of judgment.  The lawyer thus made a plea for Xu Wenku for a not-guilty verdict.

Xu's defense lawyer also claimed in the defense statement that 15 murder cases were tried across the county recently.  Xu did not participate in those court trials.  Most of the courts pronounced that Xu was the mastermind in those cases without trying Xu, and this is depriving his right to defend himself.  During the court trial at Shuangya city, these effective court verdicts were presented as evidence of Xu's criminality, and this is therefore an unfair chain of evidence.

Certain people who attended the court trial later told Phoenix Weekly: The court needs to have legal truth and the police should provide legal as well as legally effective evidence to support the accusations against Xu.  As the top person in charge, Xu Wenku should bear the corresponding responsibility for these blood murders -- when the various believers of the Three Grades of Servants around the county went after their own ex-believers as well as rival sect believers, it would be against commonsense to think that the top authorities of the church did not instruct them.

The sixteen murder cases charged against the Three Grades of Servants in the indictment document 2006(1):

  1. In 2002, several believers of the Three Grades of Servants in Heze city, Shandong province kidnapped two Eastern Lightning male believers who were proselytizing in Henan province and took them to a basement in Cao county, Shandong province.  Three days later, the two were buried alive in the lotus field of the Jiao family near the border of Henan and Shandong provinces.
  2. In February 2002, an unidentified male Eastern Lightning believer was kidnapped by members of the Three Grades of Servants in Wengou town, Dazu county, Chongqing city.  He was then strangled and his body was dumped in the wilderness.
  3. In June 2002, Three Grades of Servants believers attacked Eastern Lightning believer Jia Jiulin in Zhengyuan town, Gaotai county, Kansu province.  He was stabbed with knives and dragged onto a car where he was held on the floor between the front and back seats.  Jia would die during the trip.
  4. In July 2002, a Kansu female Eastern Lightning believer named Liu Yanping was kidnapped by Three Grades of Servants believers and brought to a basement where she was beaten and interrogated for information about the addresses and activities of Eastern Lightning.  This former pharmaceutical factor worker could not suffer the torture and hanged herself.
  5. On July 11, 2002, Three Grades of Servants believer Lian Zifu organized individuals Liu, Wang, Liu and other believers to kidnap Eastern Lightning believers Tang and Qian in Huaguoshan village, Da'an town, Yongcun city, Chongqing.  Several days later, Qian died from suffocation and Tang was strangled.  The two bodies were stuffed into sacks and thrown into a reservoir in the county.
  6. In November 2002, Three Grades of Servants believers in Baishan city, Jilin province thought that a female hotel guest appeared to be from Eastern Lightning.  They kidnapped her and help her in captivity.  Two days later, the woman was stranged and buried.
  7. On January 23, 2003, Three Grades of Servants believers found an Eastern Lightning believer named Liu in Yichun city, Heilongjiang province.  Liu was held in a basement where the temperature was colder than minus ten and repeatedly beaten.  The next morning, Liu was dead.  His body was burned, and whatever was left was removed and buried.
  8. In January 2003, a new Three Grades of Servants member who was a female ticket seller for a Dalian bus company was suspected to be a spy from Eastern Lightning.  After several days of torture, the female admitted that she was a spy who was attempting to collect information and get close to Xu Wenku in order to kidnap him.  She was quickly taken to a hill in Anzi town, Zhuanghe city, strangled and buried.
  9. On February 17, 2003, Eastern Lightning believes Zhang Chengli and Liu Dedong were found out by the Three Grades of Servants.  Zhang was stranged to death.  The tied-up Liu and the dead Zhang were thrown in a car trunk, where Liu died from suffocation.
  10. On March 27, 2003, an Eastern Lightning believer named Gu Junzhong in Donggong city, Liaoning province, was suspected of using women to seduce Three Grades of Servants believers.  Several days later, Gu assaulted and strangled in a barber shop, and his corpse was taken away and buried.
  11. On March 29, 2003, Three Grades of Servants believers in Tengzhou city, Shandong province, found and kidnapped Eastern Lightning believer Qiu Qiyu.  Qiu was incarcerated in a basement.  Later, Qiu was transported to Qufu city but died from suffocation during the trip.
  12. On March 30, 2003, Eastern Lightning believers Wang Xiufen and Zhang Xuejun were proselytizing in Yucheng county, Shandong province when they were attacked by Three Grades of Servants believers.  The two had that hands and feet tied up, thrown into sacks and tossed into a river in Bingcheng district, Bingzhou city.  They drowned.
  13. In early 2003, Eastern Lightning believer Li Yaxian of Chengling county, Jilin province, was assaulted in his own home by Three Grades of Servants believers and strangled to death.  His body was taken out and buried.
  14. In April 2003, a blind man named Ying Yongjiang was discovered to be an Eastern Lightning believer who was attempting to persuade Three Grades of Servants to convert.  Several Three Grades of Servants believers brought machetes and batons, and drove to Ying's  home at night.  Ying died as a result of a beating.
  15. In December 2003, Three Grades of Servants believers took revenge against a believer named He who had left the church.  A Shandong believer named Wang Chang and another believer went to He's home in Jiangxi.  In early morning, the two climbed over the wall into the courtyard.  Then they climbed up the wall to the verandah and entered He's bedroom.  They used long cloth sacks stuffed with rocks and battered the He couple in their bed.  Wang then jumped on the bed and stabbed He several times.  He died from loss of blood.
  16. On January 28, 2004, Three Grades of Servants believers Wang Jun, Ben Zhonghai and Liu Zhixue posed as police officers and entered the home of Eastern Lightning believer Zhang Cuiping who had left their church.  Zhang was kidnapped, killed and buried under the snow.

(New York Times)  Violence Taints Religion's Solace for China's Poor.  Joseph Kahn.  November 25, 2004.

HUAIDE, China - Kuang Yuexia and her husband, Cai Defu, considered themselves good Christians. They read the Bible every night before bed. When their children misbehaved, they dealt with them calmly. They did not curse or tell lies.

But when Zhang Chengli, a neighbor, began hounding them last year to leave their underground religious sect and join his, it seemed like a test of satanic intensity. He scaled the wall of their garden, ambushed them in the fields and roused them after midnight with frantic calls to convert before Jesus arrived for his Second Coming and sent them to hell.

Ms. Kuang poured dirty water on Mr. Zhang's head. Mr. Cai punched him. Yet Mr. Zhang persisted for months until the couple's sect intervened and stopped his proselytizing for good.

Mr. Zhang's body - eyes, ears and nose ripped from his face - was found by a roadside 300 miles from this rural town in Jilin Province, in northeastern China. The police arrested Mr. Cai and fellow sect members. One of them died in police custody during what fellow inmates described as a torture session.

China's growing material wealth has eluded the countryside, home to two-thirds of its population. But there is a bull market in sects and cults competing for souls. That has alarmed the authorities, who seem uncertain whether the spread of religion or its systematic repression does more to turn peasants against Communist rule.

The demise of Communist ideology has left a void, and it is being filled by religion. The country today has more church-going Protestants than Europe, according to several foreign estimates. Buddhism has become popular among the social elite. Beijing college students wait hours for a pew during Christmas services in the capital's 100 packed churches.

But it is the rural underclass that is most desperate for salvation. The rural economy has grown relatively slowly. Corruption and a collapse in state-sponsored medical care and social services are felt acutely. But government-sanctioned churches operate mainly in cities, where they can be closely monitored, and priests and ministers by law can preach only to those who come to them.

The authorities do not ban religious activity in the countryside. But they have made it so difficult for established churches to operate there that many rural Chinese have turned to underground, often heterodox religious movements.

Charismatic sect leaders denounce state-sanctioned churches. They promise healing in a part of the country where the state has all but abandoned responsibility for public health. They also promise deliverance from the coming apocalypse, and demand money, loyalty and strict secrecy from their members.

Three Grades of Servants, a banned Christian sect that claims several million followers, made inroads in Huaide and other northern towns beginning nearly a decade ago. It lured peasants like Yu Xiaoping, as well as her neighbor, Ms. Kuang, away from state-authorized churches. Its underground network provided spiritual and social services to isolated villages.

But it also attracted competition from Eastern Lightning, its archrival, which sought to convert Ms. Yu, Ms. Kuang and others. The two sects clashed violently. Both became targets of a police crackdown.

Xu Shuangfu, the itinerant founder of Three Grades of Servants, who says he has divine powers, was arrested last summer along with scores of associates. Mr. Xu was suspected of having ordered the execution of religious enemies, police officers said.

Yet such efforts rarely stop the spread of underground churches and sects, which derive legitimacy from government pressure.

"Beijing cannot tolerate religious groups that are not directly under its control," says Susanna Chen, a researcher in Taiwan who has studied the rural sects. "But for every group they repress, there are two to replace it. And the new ones are often more dangerous than those that came before."

The Comfort of Baptism

Huaide is in the heart of China's breadbasket. Corn grows 10 feet tall on treeless plains that surround rust-belt factories and tidy brick villages, stretching east to the North Korean border.

After the autumn harvest, the fields have been stripped of all but a foliage of corn leaves and the town settles into a languorous winter rhythm. But the placid surface hides Huaide's spiritual turmoil.

Yu Xiaoping, a farmer and shop attendant here, grew up an atheist. Her father was a Communist Party member and a elementary school administrator who frowned on religion, especially when he discovered that his sister attended church. But he died of stomach cancer a decade ago, leaving a small plot of land, a tiny pension and a dying ideology.

Ms. Yu got a part-time job in the local farmers market. She, her sister or her baby niece slept shoulder-to-shoulder with her mother on the family kang, or platform bed, in their two-room home. She felt pinched for cash and confined.

One winter day in 1995 her aunt invited her to attend services in Gongzhuling, about 40 miles away, the closest state-authorized Protestant church. Ms. Yu agreed on a whim. She was surprised to find the simple beige-and-white assembly hall packed with 700 congregants, praying and singing in one voice. Ms. Yu returned the next week, this time taking the bus alone. On her third trip, she was baptized.

Ms. Yu is now 36 years old, petite, rosy-cheeked and prone to giggle. But she talks about having a purpose in life imparted by God.

"Until the day I found God, I felt like I was wandering aimlessly," she said. "Suddenly I felt clear of mind and free of guilt and sin."

Huaide did not have its own church. But soon Ms. Yu received invitations from new friends to attend private services. Villagers discussed the Bible. Sometimes a visiting minister delivered a sermon.

Many visiting ministers criticized the government-licensed church Ms. Yu had attended. They questioned its mandate that parishioners must be at least 18 years old, arguing that God intended children to hear the Gospel. The state's requirement that church members register offended her, as did the stipulation that Communist Party officials, like her late father, forswear Christianity.

"Religion must be based on your heart, not on such rules," she said.

One day a visiting minister - Ms. Yu says she remembers him clearly for his southern accent - delivered a scathing criticism of state-backed churches. He said they emphasized outdated, literal readings of the Bible instead of interpreting how scripture should inform today's world. He urged her to consider an alternative that he said brought Jesus' teaching alive: Three Grades of Servants.

The Appeal of a Sect

Xu Shuangfu, who the authorities say was born Xu Wenku, is a religious entrepreneur. Now in his 60's, he founded Three Grades of Servants in Henan Province in the late 1980's and oversaw its growth despite serving time in custody.

The sect's hierarchy is based on what Mr. Xu argued is the theme of a trinity that runs through scripture, including three servants of God (Moses, Aaron and Pashur, the ancestor of a priestly family) in the Old Testament, and three friends of Jesus (Martha, Mary and Lazarus) in the New Testament. Mr. Xu occupies the top grade and maintains that he, as Moses did, talks to God.

The group is millenarian. Mr. Xu, followers say, predicted that Jesus would return to earth and eliminate nonbelievers in 1989, then again in 1993. When this did not happen, Mr. Xu explained that even God misjudged how long Abraham's descendants would stay in Egypt. He did not set a third date for the Second Coming.

Though he failed to divine the future, Mr. Xu did reach deeply into the lives of his peasant followers. The sect played a guiding role in Ms. Yu's life not unlike the way the Communist Party, in its heyday of molding people according to Maoist and Marxist doctrine, shaped her father's life.

Ms. Yu reported to a "fellow worker" in Three Grades of Servants, a woman who went by the code name Xing Zhi, or Fortunate Aspirations. Xing Zhi coordinated prayer sessions, collected donations and taught Ms. Yu what to wear, what to eat, when to wake up in the morning. She even matched Ms. Yu with another of her young charges, Zhang Qinghai. Ms. Yu and Mr. Zhang read the Bible together, discussed their goals and fell in love. They married a decade ago, six months after meeting.

"You are not required to marry within the group," Ms. Yu said. "But Xing Zhi said if you find someone you love who is also in the group, then that is the ideal."

Like Ms. Yu, Kuang Yuexia and her husband, Cai Defu, had their first religious experience at a state-authorized church. But the distance and the demands of raising two girls and a boy made their visits infrequent.

Then in 1995, Mr. Cai developed a brain tumor. He underwent an operation that forced the family to borrow $1,500 and left his speech impaired. Doctors recommended further procedures. But they could afford no more medical bills and he recuperated at home, slowly.

Three Grades of Servants sent a local organizer, Chen Zhihua, to read the Bible and sing hymns with Ms. Kuang and the bedridden Mr. Cai. Sect members helped Ms. Kuang tend her four acres of corn during her husband's illness.

Ms. Kuang, 46, talks in nervous soliloquies that often give way to tears when she discusses religion. She said Three Grade of Servants became a defining force in her life.

"I loved the songs and the discipline," she recalled. "I used to get angry with the children before they taught me how to change my personality. I learned that you must eliminate hate from your mind."

She said the teachings improved her husband's health. The sect preached calm when facing trial, and Mr. Cai learned to control the flow of blood to his brain, she said, reducing the hemorrhaging that had occurred when he became stressed. He resumed working in the fields.

"Enhancing our understanding of the Bible achieved results that expensive medicine could not achieve," Ms. Kuang said.

A few years ago Ms. Yu and Ms. Kuang received a summons to attend a service at the home of Ms. Chen, the local organizer, and discovered that the "big servant" himself, Xu Shuangfu, had arrived to deliver a sermon. Everyone kept silent in his presence.

Ms. Kuang remembers better how he looked than what he said. He had round cheeks but very white skin and a beatific smile, making him appear part Chinese and part Western.

"He looked like Jesus," she said.

On the Margins

Since the early days of economic reforms in the 1980's, China has eased restrictions on religious activity, especially in the cities.

But registration requirements and periodic harassment limit growth, as does a chronic shortage of clerics. The five officially recognized religions - Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism - cannot promote themselves or expand easily. The goal seems to be to prevent any from acquiring clout to rival the Communist Party.

The losers are marginalized people who need spiritual support the most, like laid-off workers and rural migrants in cities and peasants in the countryside. They get little benefit from churches that cannot, by law, reach out to them.

One movement that took advantage of this gap was Falun Gong, which espouses an idiosyncratic mix of traditional Chinese qigong exercises and meditation. Its millions of loyal followers resisted stubbornly, though peacefully, when the government crushed it in 1999.

Christian sects form and mutate in the countryside, vying to attract the same disadvantaged classes.

"Cults are thriving among those the government has abandoned," says Kang Xiaoguang, a political scientist at Qinghua University in Beijing. "They provide social services the government no longer does. They give people a sense of belonging," he said.

There are the Shouters and the Spirit Church, the Disciples Association and White Sun, the Holistic Church and the Crying Faction. Many are apocalyptic. A few are strongly anti-Communist. Three Grades of Servants and Eastern Lightning are among the largest, each claiming membership in the millions.

Their identities may be less important than their profusion. They erupt suddenly, shocking authorities with their secrecy, financial wherewithal, tight-knit organization and, occasionally, their willingness to use force.

For the Communist Party, this is uncomfortably reminiscent of China's past. Millenarian sects have been harbingers of dynastic change since the Yellow Turbans contributed to the fall of the Han Dynasty at the end of the second century. As recently as the 19th century, the Taiping and Boxer rebellions weakened the Qing Dynasty and fostered the social turmoil that eventually helped the Communists themselves to take power.

Earlier this year, the government ordered the agency established to combat Falun Gong, called the 610 Office, to pursue a crackdown against rural cults.

"The threat posed by Falun Gong has been superseded by organizations in the countryside that are vying with the party for people's hearts," a document posted by the 610 Office says. "Some are even the spearhead of a movement to seize power from the Communist Party."

The Religious Battle

The 610 Office lists Eastern Lightning as a top target. The group was founded in 1990 by a woman, surnamed Deng, who claims that she is the returned Jesus Christ. It recruits mainly from other religious groups and often uses tactics that include spying, kidnapping and brainwashing, according to two people who say they were forcibly held by the group.

Authorities banned Eastern Lightning several years ago. But it has expanded to become by some foreign estimates the largest underground religious group in China.

In Huaide, as in other northeastern hotspots, Eastern Lightning set its sights on the main local religious force: Three Grades of Servants. In early 2003, Eastern Lightning recruited a few members in Huaide. They in turn were given conversion quotas and an urgent timetable: to save as many souls as possible before the female Jesus wiped out nonbelievers.

Ms. Yu and her husband were approached by two former members of their own sect who had converted. They were given a 1,000-page customized Bible and hymn book, bound in yellow. Eastern Lightning followers returned frequently to discuss the contents and persuade them to convert.

"If you didn't say yes to one person, they would just send another, like messengers from the Devil," Ms. Yu said.

Zhang Chengli, a local farmer and Eastern Lightning operative, headed the team to convert Ms. Kuang and Mr. Cai. According to Ms. Kuang, he followed them to their home and in the fields. His message was blunt.

"He told us that if we joined Lightning, then God would protect us," Ms. Kuang said. "But if we didn't join, we would die."

After midnight one night he stood outside their bedroom with a bullhorn. He yelled through the window, "Convert or die!" Ms. Kuang said.

Another day he clipped the wings of a pigeon and tossed it into their vegetable garden. The bird hopped around until Ms. Kuang captured it and brought it into her pantry, thinking it might make a meal. When she inspected it, she found a note glued to its belly. It read, "Those who cannot see the light will die."

To get rid of Mr. Zhang, Ms. Kuang dumped household wastewater on his head. Mr. Cai, ignoring his own sect's teachings on remaining unruffled, punched Mr. Zhang and smashed his bicycle tires with a metal pipe.

When Mr. Zhang persisted, they considered alerting the police. But they were themselves part of an underground Christian group. And they decided it was morally wrong.

"However bad he was," Ms. Kuang said, "I could not report another Christian to the police."

A Lethal Solution

Three Grades of Servants had been fighting defections in several northeastern provinces. So when Xing Zhi, the chief coordinator for the sect in Huaide, heard about Mr. Zhang's campaign, she took decisive measures.

She told Mr. Cai to notify her the next time Mr. Zhang came calling, Ms. Kuang said. Ms. Yu's husband was deployed in a stakeout. When Mr. Zhang pedaled by, he was intercepted, gagged with tape and stuffed into the back of a white van, which sped away, according to local residents who saw the abduction.

Assassins sliced away Mr. Zhang's facial features before discarding his corpse. That turned out be a calling card of Three Grades of Servants, which has been linked to several grisly murders. The police were able to identify him only because he was carrying a report card from his son's school, Huaide Elementary, in a back pocket. They began a crackdown.

In an evening raid, Ms. Yu and her husband; Ms. Kuang and Mr. Cai; and Ms. Chen, their neighbor and fellow sect member, were whisked to Jilin provincial police headquarters. Ms. Kuang was so nervous she threw up in the back seat.

Ms. Yu and Ms. Kuang said that they were shackled to metal chairs and interrogated through the night in adjacent rooms. In the early hours, both women recalled hearing Ms. Chen scream and moan in pain.

When dawn broke, the police abruptly suspended their inquest and dismissed Ms. Yu and Ms. Kuang with orders to say nothing about their detention. Shortly thereafter, the women learned that Ms. Chen had died in custody. The police told Ms. Chen's family that she had suffered a "sudden heart attack."

Nearly a year after they were detained, their husbands remain in custody, though they have yet to be charged with a crime. Xing Zhi, the sect's promoter, was also arrested.

The founder of the sect, Xu Shuangfu, was apprehended this summer after a long manhunt. Christian activist groups abroad led a campaign to protest the arrest, citing it as evidence of harsh reprisals against house churches. China's Public Security Bureau said in a written statement that Mr. Xu was charged with ordering murders and leading an "illegal cult."

Ms. Kuang now lives alone in Huaide. Her children have moved away to find jobs in the city. She says she lives in fear of retaliation, either by Eastern Lightning or the police.

Recently she spotted two police officers entering her yard, presumably to resume their interrogation. She said she was so afraid of another round of grilling that she drank a bottle of rat poison in front of them. She was taken to the hospital to have her stomach pumped.

Ms. Yu still lives with her mother and sister. A charcoal grill her husband used to sell barbecued meat on the street is rusting by their door, filled with rainwater and sludge.

The police confiscated her Bible. But she still prays often for her husband's release. The violence in her village only confirmed her faith in Xu Shuangfu. She said he predicted all along that evil authorities and devilish sects would compete for influence at the crucial juncture.

"This is exactly what happens," she said, "when the world is coming to an end."

(TIME Asia)  Jesus Is Back, and She's Chinese.  Matthew Forney.  November 5, 2001.

Sister Hong's brainwashing session began when her Bible class ended. Five peasant women had led the Catholic nun to a house in a distant village in Henan province two years ago so that she could teach the life of Jesus. Suddenly, the women vanished and a man entered. For the next five days he refused to let her leave and forced her to debate the Bible. He said the day of judgment is nigh. Jesus has returned. China—the Great Red Dragon from the Book of Revelations—faces destruction. By the end, "I was dizzy. I was confused. He knew the Bible so well," says Sister Hong. Her pleading, plus promises to return, finally won her release. Lightning had struck again.

A fast-spreading sect named Lightning from the East is alarming Christian communities across China by winning large numbers of converts to its unorthodox tenets, often by abducting potential believers. Its followers, who say they number 300,000 but whom observers measure in the tens of thousands, believe that Jesus has returned as a plain-looking, 30-year-old Chinese woman who lives in hiding and has never been photographed. They credit her with composing a third testament to the Bible, writing enough hymns to fill 10 CDs and teaching that Christians who join her will ascend to heaven in the coming apocalypse. They see signs of doom everywhere, from the perfidy of Communist Party propaganda to anthrax spores in the U.S. postal system. According to one of the group's Chinese leaders who uses the alias "Peter" and moved to New York City last year, "The judgment is ongoing in China and will expand through the world."

The sect—which calls itself "the congregation"—operates deep underground. A two-year police campaign against it and other so-called "evil cults," such as Falun Gong, has put 2,000 of its followers in jail, say its spokesmen. Yet by targeting Christian believers it is flourishing—even though its belief that the female Jesus has updated the Bible for China violates core Christian tenets. The appeal seems to be the group's claim to have improved the Christian faith by putting the end of the world into a Chinese context and offering believers a path to immediate salvation. Official Christian churches, by contrast, downplay the Final Judgment, emphasizing instead codes of behavior. That, plus the sect's insistence that China is "disintegrating from within," appeals to peasants, many of whom are poorly grounded in Christian principles and are angry at a government that has failed to raise their incomes or curb corruption.

Fearful for their believers' souls and welfare, leaders of China's roughly 60 million Christians have mobilized. Last year a man claiming to be Lightning's coordinator for north China met secretly with a senior aide to a Catholic bishop in Hebei province to try to convert the Catholic leadership there. He failed, and the bishopric has warned clergies to remain vigilant against Lightning. In Henan, the main church in Dengfeng county called a meeting of 70 lay leaders for a two-day training session on Lightning's "heresies"—but since then five of the leaders have joined the sect. Lightning "is the greatest danger we face today," says a minister named Li who no longer allows strangers to worship in his church in Zhengzhou city, where the sect began a decade ago.

Lightning is the most aggressive Christian sect to emerge in China since the revolution, but it follows a beaten path. In the decades before the communists swept to power in 1949, a Chinese missionary known as Watchman Nee built his congregation, the Little Flock, to 300,000 followers in central China. The sect's emphasis on decentralized congregations launched a home-church movement that helped Christianity survive communist repression. Yet as Little Flock congregations became isolated, they splintered into separate groups. The Shouters, for instance, rewrote the Lord's Prayer to read simply, "Oh, Lord Jesus," and taught followers to holler the phrase while stamping their feet in unison. Other offshoots, like the Disciples, believe that the devil exists in all people—and can be beaten out of them.

Today, the Communist Party's restrictions on religion help sects flourish. China's 18 state-sanctioned Protestant seminaries can't graduate enough ministers, and in the countryside, believers commonly outnumber ordained preachers 50,000 to one—not enough shepherds for an expanding flock. The unavailability of rural health-care means that "seven out of 10 converts come to faith through illness" after people pray for their recovery, estimates Faye Pearson, a teacher at China's biggest seminary, in Nanjing. Many of these converts have scarcely read the Bible. Without strong doctrinal leadership, it's a prescription for heterodoxy. "I'm not sure that most rural Christians are well enough grounded in Christianity to even know they're in a sect," says Daniel Bays, a historian of Chinese Christianity at Calvin College in Michigan.

A typical country church, this one outside Dengfeng county is run by a lay minister who has received no special training on dealing with strange sects. It is poor. The pulpit is a red flounce curtain draped over a desk; broken windows let the swirling central China dust coat the whitewashed walls. The biggest single expenditure this year was the $25 the congregation gave its most desperate members to celebrate the lunar new year. Every Sunday 150 peasants crowd onto low wooden benches to receive the Word, including a gray-haired woman known as Granny He.

On a chilly night three autumns ago, a young woman in her 20s walked past the chickens scratching in Granny He's courtyard and knocked on her red wooden door. The caller had done her research: she knew Granny He was Christian and that her husband, a teacher, spent time away. They talked about God for two hours that evening, and for longer on subsequent nights. Then the visitor arranged for a rare luxury—a car to drive Granny He to worship in someone's home. There, she and seven other believers sat facing the preacher. He said the Jesus of the Bible is the old one. The new Jesus has come, and she will destroy the earth. They sang hymns that the new savior had written to the tunes of familiar revolutionary ditties like Communist Party, My Loving Mama. Granny He returned four more times. On occasion, when the spirit moved them, they danced. "I half believed and half doubted," she says. A month later, concerned relatives forbade her to attend any more meetings. Sundays now find her back on the country church's wooden benches, but she sounds ambivalent about Lightning: "I don't think they harm people's spirit."

Granny He's experience was a textbook piece of evangelism. The sect's most trusted members receive a 67-page missionary manual explaining the dos and don'ts of conversion. Do start slowly, lend money, convince converts that God's work is incomplete and, finally, that doomsday is coming and Jesus has arrived to complete that work. Don't tell them until they are firm believers that the new Jesus will destroy the Great Red Dragon, which in the Bible represents Satan but to Lightning represents China. And if anybody asks why the "all-powerful" new Jesus must hide from police, the answer is that "there's a time for secrecy and a time for openness, but she has her plan," says Joseph Yu, a believer who arrived in New York City two years ago.

Sometimes, the plan seems unfathomable. A 60-year-old woman from Zhengzhou says Lightning devotees invited her to teach the Bible in their homes last year. They drove her to an unfamiliar village and presented her with a screaming and trembling man. They instructed her to cast out his devil. She couldn't. Then a Lightning follower prayed and sure enough the devil vanished, proving the woman's God was false, they said. Frightened, she acknowledged that her God seemed less powerful. Still, they held her nine more days, until her minister tracked her down and sought the police. She is too afraid to be quoted by name. "The other day I dreamed that they piled onto my bed and wouldn't leave," she said in a phone interview.

Lightning from the East has burrowed further underground in China. But already its followers hand out leaflets in Chinatowns in New York City and San Francisco. Lightning could soon strike the West.

(Washington Post)  Chinese Christians Are a Force, But What Kind?  Joshua Kurlantzick.  November 28, 2004.

Weekends in Beijing reveal sharp differences between tourists and residents of the sprawling Chinese capital. On Saturdays and Sundays, Beijing's most famous sights -- the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square -- are crawling with visitors, making even Disney World at high season seem serene. Beijingers, meanwhile, flock to the flashy new shopping malls just east of Tiananmen, full of latte-swilling yuppies jabbering on mobile phones, and massive supermarkets offering everything from Parmalat milk to Peking duck.

Growing numbers of Beijingers also pack into a different kind of structure on the weekend. On Sundays, the capital's government-registered Protestant churches overflow with as many as 5,000 worshipers each. Some are so crowded that believers who don't arrive early must huddle in the basements, watching services on closed-circuit televisions. 

And, since the Chinese government has limited the number of registered churches in Beijing and other cities, millions of other Christians worship underground. On a visit to Shanghai last year, I wandered into a registered Catholic church and witnessed nearly 1,000 Chinese participating in Mass -- one of three Masses held that Sunday, to keep up with rising demand. Believers listened raptly to a sermon, and prayed fervently in unison.

Though the Communist Party all but destroyed the Protestant and Catholic churches when it took over in 1949, scholars estimate that the country now has at least 45 million Christians. Dennis Balcombe, pastor of Hong Kong's Revival Christian Church and an expert who has studied Chinese Christianity for two decades, believes that there may be as many as 90 million Christians in China.

There's a tendency among some outside China to see the spread of religion as speeding political change and creating an ethical bond with the world beyond China's borders. "As cultural and social traditions evolve, Christianity is poised to provide new ethical and moral foundations for the emergence of a modern Civil Society and State," Sister Janet Carroll of the U.S. Catholic China Bureau told the Congressional Executive Commission on China in September.

But the fastest growing religious movements in China seem unlikely to provide salvation for the country. Though Catholicism, which in China comprises both a state-sanctioned church and underground churches loyal to the Vatican, is becoming more popular, the majority of new Chinese Christians are Protestants. And while the state-sanctioned Protestant church is growing, most Chinese Christians are joining underground "house" churches. These churches are generally found away from city centers, in outlying regions, hidden within communal areas and marked only by discreet signs of faith.

Many house church services are so passionate that they would surprise even the most committed American evangelicals. Many house churches hold prayer meetings, at which they recruit new members and affirm their relationship to God, that last for several days, even up to a week. The Crying School, a house church that reportedly has at least 500,000 members, holds three-day retreats at which adherents wail and cry en masse, repenting in anticipation of the apocalypse. Another underground movement known as the Shouters believes in screaming for hours on end, to attest to one's faith. The Shouters reportedly shriek out a shortened version of the Lord's Prayer while stamping their feet.

There are several reasons why Christianity is thriving in China. Between 1949 and the decline of Maoism, the Chinese Communist Party eviscerated the country's traditional culture and institutions, denigrating Confucianism, ancestor worship, traditional family structures and classical Chinese education and arts. At the same time, the CCP suppressed civil society actors such as unions and rival parties.

Then, in the past two decades, the Chinese people have been tossed into a capitalist maelstrom of the most social Darwinist kind, with a paucity of social safety nets and an abundance of consumption. The government has tried to foster a new ideology based on Chinese nationalism, but it has not proven overwhelmingly popular. Shocked by the rapid transition of Chinese society, unconvinced that capitalism alone can provide a fulfilling life, and divorced from traditional culture, many younger Chinese have been turning to religion.

Indeed, not only Christianity but also many other faiths -- Buddhism, Taoism, Islam and qi gong offshoots like Falun Gong -- are gaining new adherents in the Middle Kingdom. As this newspaper has reported, Buddhist monasteries in central China have become so popular that they have drawn thousands of devout pilgrims, inspiring a government crackdown. In just five years, Falun Gong has grown from an obscure spiritual breathing movement into a national phenomenon capable of holding rallies across China.

Christianity is drawing older believers as well. Small farms and state-linked industrial enterprises have been closing in large numbers, especially in China's old manufacturing heartland in the northeast. In these areas, unemployed workers -- mostly middle-aged and older -- mill on the sides of the road or sleep in parks and other public areas. As Kim-Kwong Chan, executive secretary of the Hong Kong Christian Council and a fellow at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, reported this year, Christianity "draws on the huge pool of dissatisfied unemployed workers or poor farmers, who may cling to anything that gives them hope." House churches also often provide social services to the poor whom the government has abandoned.

Christianity -- in particular, evangelical Protestant faiths -- is in some ways even more alluring to Chinese than Buddhism or Islam. With its emphasis on individual relationships with God, evangelical Christianity is flexible enough to tailor its message to both the poor and the wealthy. What's more, many Chinese, particularly in poor areas, associate Christianity with miracles. And house churches are not tainted by being registered with the government, which makes the state-linked church leaders appear to be party hacks.

Beijing has developed two methods of handling the rise of Christianity. On the one hand, the government has permitted worship at registered churches and increased the state budget for official houses of worship. At the same time, it has cracked down hard on house churches that have outspoken leaders who attempt to build a national membership. Last fall, Chinese police reportedly closed 10 house churches in Daqing and this summer, according to U.S.-based groups, the government arrested 100 Christians who attended a house church retreat. Yet this repression actually has encouraged many house church worshipers, who see those arrested as suffering a kind of martyrdom equivalent to that of early Christians.

Beijing's harsh treatment of the popular house churches has enhanced their image abroad as bases of political dissent and harbingers of political change. Some scholars, such as David Aikman, author of the new book "Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power," believe that the rise of Christianity might lead average Chinese to accept liberal political values and to demand that their government do the same. Aikman even suggests that, as China becomes more Christian and thus more liberal, it could become more willing to cooperate with the United States on international issues. 

Richard Madsen, a scholar of Chinese Christianity at the University of California at San Diego, recently told National Public Radio that Chinese Christians "have in mind what happened in Eastern Europe [in the 1980s] . . . where the rise of and energizing of a variety of religious groups did, in fact, help to weaken the socialist states."

In part because they believe that Christianity can transform Chinese politics, American, South Korean, Taiwanese and Hong Kong evangelical groups have made China a top priority for proselytizing. Tens of millions of Bibles have been delivered into China in the past decade, and many foreign missionaries have sneaked into the country, often posing as English teachers or businesspeople. 

Still, it is unlikely that Chinese house churches will play the role of Catholicism did Poland during the 1980s, when it provided believers, laid-off workers and other groups with a unifying, liberal political structure. Unlike many priests in Eastern Europe, some Chinese house church leaders are highly conservative, focused on nothing other than evangelism and taking little interest in politics. Usually they are willing to challenge the state only when pressed to the wall, such as when Beijing tried to ban Sunday school education in several provinces.

What's more, because Christianity was so harshly repressed in China, and because many Chinese seem to be looking for millenarian, miracle-producing faiths, many popular house church movements have developed into authoritarian fiefdoms themselves, with adherents following one charismatic leader, who often has little religious training. These underground leaders are hardly vehicles for liberal reform.

In some of these heretical movements, which mix elements of Christianity with folk religion, leaders announce that they are Jesus reincarnated or that they have direct links to the Lord. As the New York Times recently reported, one house church, Three Grades of Servants, is organized around its leader, Xu Shuangfu, who claims to speak with God. Three Grades now claims to have several million followers; Xu reportedly has ordered the killing of his religious enemies.

Three Grades's sworn enemy, another house church known as Eastern Lightning that claims a similar following, is just as intense. Eastern Lightning also believes that Jesus has returned to Earth, and has taken the form of a Chinese peasantwoman. Like Three Grades, Eastern Lightning tries to force other Christians to join its group, allegedly kidnapping other house church leaders and trying to brainwash them until they join Lightning.

Some house churches, such as the longer-established and more urban-oriented Little Flock, which has thrived in eastern China, are more liberal, holding youth group meetings for Bible discussion and other intellectual activities.

But in rural and poor areas, it is the more apocalyptic groups like Eastern Lightning that appear to be growing fastest. And as China becomes more open while simultaneously more economically stratified, groups like Lightning, which cater to the uneducated masses, are only going to grow in power. If Aikman proves correct, and China one day has hundreds of millions of Christians, groups like Eastern Lightning could have tens of millions of disciples. By then, these extreme groups could foment change -- but not the kind of change liberal reformers envision.

(Reuters)  China Sentences Sect Members to Death for Murders.  July 7, 2006.

China sentenced three members of a local Christian sect to death for the murder of followers of a rival group and ordered likely life sentences for three other members of the controversial underground religion.  The court in Shuangyashan in northeast China's Heilongjiang province ordered the execution of Xu Shuangfu, the 60-year-old founder of the ''Three Grades of Servants,'' or Church of Truth, and members Li Maoxing and Wang Jun.  Three others were given death sentences with a two-year reprieve, a sentence that usually leads to life in prison.  Eleven other followers received prison sentences from three to 15 years.

Since the end of the chaotic 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, China's ruling Communist Party has allowed religion in controlled settings, but it has faced constant challenges from underground groups that reject its authority.  China outlawed the most dramatic spiritual threat to party rule, the Falun Gong spiritual movement, in 1999.

Lawyers for the accused said the court judgment was dated June 28 but sent to them only Wednesday. ``It is legally inappropriate to sentence them to death, and we will appeal,'' said Xu's defense lawyer Li Heping.  Court officials were not immediately available for comment.

Xu, also known as Xu Wenku, and the other members of the small church were accused of murdering 20 people, mainly members of the rival Oriental Lightning church, between 2002 and 2004.  Xu and others were also accused of defrauding others of 32 million yuan ($4 million).

Xu founded his group in the mid-1980s, combining strains of Christian tradition with his own esoteric claims. It was also banned as a cult in 1999, according to Chinese media accounts.  Prosecutors accused the Three Servants of brutally murdering former members who left to join Oriental Lightning, a rival Christian-inspired sect that was founded in central China's Henan province.

Xu said Oriental Lightning was controlled by the Devil, according to the Chinese magazine Phoenix Weekly.  Xu and the other two sentenced to death will appeal their sentences, said his lawyer Li. He said was not sure about the other defendants.

(The Guardian)  Christian sect leader guilty of killing rivals in China.  Jonathan Watts (with additional reporting by Huang Lisha).  July 8, 2006.

The founder of one of China's biggest Christian sects has been sentenced to death along with two of his acolytes for the murder of about 20 followers of a rival apocalyptic group.

In a case that has revealed the violent competition for souls in this nominally atheist country, a court ordered the execution of Xu Shuangfu, 60, the head of the Three Grades of Servants, and his followers, Li Maoxing and Wang Jun. Fourteen other members of the sect, which claims millions of adherents, were given suspended death sentences or prison terms of up to 15 years. 
They were found guilty of killing members of Eastern Lightning, a rival Christian sect, between 2002 and 2004, and defrauding followers of 32m yuan (£2.2m).

The public security bureau has put Three Grades of Servants on its list of more than a dozen illegal cults. Censors have forbidden the mainland media from reporting on the group's activities. Supporters claimed they were victims of religious persecution.

"This is absurd. My father only found out about the murders after the hearings opened," said his daughter, Xu Baiyin. "He signed a confession because they connected electric cables to his fingers, toes and penis. They made him sign it even though he couldn't read the document because they wouldn't let him wear glasses."

According to the China Aid Association, a US-based advocate for underground churches, other defendants were tortured and one of them died in custody in 2004.  Independent reports have confirmed that there was a murderous battle between the two sects. One of the victims, Zhang Chengli, was killed and mutilated after he tried to convert his neighbours to Eastern Lightning. Others had their faces sliced off.

Despite controls on churches, mosques and temples, competition for believers is heating up in China. As the dominant communist ideology is eroded by the capitalist pursuit of wealth, a spiritual vacuum has opened up that established religions and new sects are rushing to fill.

The number of Protestants is estimated to have risen from 850,000 in 1950 to more than 15 million today, while the Catholic population increased threefold to more than 10 million.  Many Christians are frustrated by government controls on official churches, which have to register believers and seek official approval of appointments. They have set up underground churches where they can worship more freely.  Some of these groups, such as the Crying School, the Shouters, the Discipline Association and the Elijah church, are apocalyptic sects.

Three Grades of Servants was formed by Xu in Henan province in the late 1980s. He predicted in 1989 and 1993 that Jesus would return to earth and slay all non-believers. The Hong Kong-based Pheonix Weekly describes him as a religious entrepreneur, who encourages his followers to be good businessmen so they can donate more money to the sect. According to the magazine, he has a chauffeur-driven Mercedes and two mansions. The Shuangyashan police said his group ran 20 enterprises, including a printing plant, a travel agency, a car repair workshop and shops in Beijing, Harbin and other cities.

Defence lawyers said Xu had done nothing illegal. "He was completely unaware of all but one of the killings and he only found out about that after it happened. He cannot control other people," said his lawyer, Zhong Lihui. The lawyers said they would appeal.

(New York Times)  China Executes Leader of Christian Sect.  By Joseph Kahn.  November 29, 2006.

The leader of a Chinese Christian sect and at least 11 of his subordinates have been executed for ordering the murder of members of a rival religious group, as authorities sought to suppress big underground churches that they deemed cults.

Xu Shuangfu, the founder of the Three Grades of Servants Church, which once claimed more than a million followers in China, was put to death last week, his lawyer, Li Heping said. Mr. Li said he and Mr. Xu’s family members learned today of his death.

The execution of Mr. Xu and two other defendants, Li Maoxing and Wang Jun, brings to 12 the number of members of Three Grades of Servants who have been put to death since a crackdown on the secretive Protestant sect began in 2004, the lawyer said.

The case exposed internecine strife among underground churches as well as the determination of Chinese authorities to crush religious groups that do not abide by the rules imposed on officially sanctioned religious organizations.

Underground religious movements have become an enormously sensitive issue for the Chinese leadership since the Falun Gong spiritual group organized a mass nationwide movement that Communist Party officials viewed as a threat to their hold on power in the late 1990’s.

Since that time, the police have condemned as cults some large underground churches, including many Christian churches. That makes it illegal for them to raise funds or recruit members, and can mean arrest for anyone associated with them.

Even so, the relative backwardness of the Chinese countryside, which has gained far less than urban areas in the long economic boom, has proven fertile ground for religious groups that offer a mix of religious teaching, communal support, employment opportunities and even health care.

Three Grades of Servants and another quasi-Protestant sect, Eastern Lightning, were among the largest charismatic and evangelical church groups. Reportedly founded in the late 1980’s, the two sects spread widely and recruited heavily among peasants and migrant workers. They formed tight, secretive organizations that thrived despite official repression.

Chinese authorities labeled both sects as cults, meaning that the police had license to arrest anyone associated with them. That pushed both sects more deeply underground.

At one time, overseas Christian aid associations considered both sects to be legitimate religious groups. But many Christian experts have since argued that their teachings are heretical — Eastern Lightning claims that Jesus has returned to Earth and is a 30-year-old Chinese woman — and their organizational practices do not adhere to international norms.

Three Grades of Servants and Eastern Lightning became archrivals in the early part of this decade as they competed to sign up adherents across northeastern China.

Some members of Eastern Lightning who had sought to lure away followers of Three Grades of Servants were found murdered beginning in 2002. Some estimates put the number of Eastern Lightning followers who were killed as high as 20.

The police moved slowly to connect the cases. But they soon reacted harshly, pursuing a nationwide crackdown against Three Grades of Servants in 2004 and 2005. They captured Mr. Xu, who had been jailed several times in the past, and prosecuted 62 other people involved with the church.

Mr. Xu was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in July. Some 21 other accused church members have so far received death sentences, according to court documents seen by international religious groups, and 12 of the executions have been carried out.

Mr. Li and Mr. Xu’s relatives do not deny that some people were murdered, but say the state’s case against Mr. Xu was deeply flawed.

Mr. Li argues that the evidence against Mr. Xu was based entirely on the confessions of fellow sect members, who he says were tortured to admit to crimes and implicate Mr. Xu.

Under Chinese law, a confession is not sufficient grounds for conviction in a criminal case. Mr. Li said prosecutors never introduced corroborating physical evidence and relied solely on the verbal testimony of other accused church members.

“The authorities presented this as a mafia-like conspiracy, but they never came close to proving their case,” Mr. Li said.

“What they really aimed to do is to shut down the whole church because they did not want to see another Falun Gong,” he said.

(The Times)  Cult leaders executed over feud with rivals.  By Jane Macartney.  November 30, 2006.

China has executed 15 members of an underground Protestant sect after a feud that resulted in the deaths of several members of a rival religious group.

Esoteric and often violent sects have been a feature of Chinese life for centuries, the most disruptive of which was the largely Buddhist White Lotus cult that rose up against the Qing dynasty in the 19th century. The ideological vacuum left by the country’s diminishing belief in the radical communist ideology espoused by Mao Zedong has given rise to an almost fanatical interest in alternative religions.

Three leaders of the Three Grade Servant Church were executed in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang this month for murdering members of what is thought to be the Eastern Lightning sect.

Li Heping, a lawyer for the men, said that court authorities had notified him of the executions of Xu Shuangfu, Li Maoxing and Wang Jun. “I felt very shocked, because lawyers and family members were not informed about the verdict before they were executed,” he said.

Xu had been accused of homicide, fraud, illegal gathering and the illegal detention of others.

The China Aid Association, which is based in Texas, said that it had seen a court document that accused Xu and other church leaders of murdering 20 leaders of the Eastern Lighting cult between 2002 and 2004. They were also accused of defrauding others out of 32 million yuan (£2 million). But the US-based group said that their confessions were extorted through severe torture and the funds that they were accused of defrauding were donations from Christians.

According to Chinese law, a court cannot convict someone based on testimonies alone, especially when the confession was extracted through torture, Mr Li said. “I believe my client was tortured to confess,” he added.  Mr Li also said that prosecutors never introduced corroborating physical evidence and had relied solely on the testimony of accused church members.  “The authorities presented this as a mafia-like conspiracy, but they never came close to proving their case,” he said.

The deaths of Xu and the others come after the executions of another 12 people for similar crimes. A total of 22 people have received death sentences in connection with the case.

Inside and outside China, Eastern Lightning and the Three Grade Servant Church are viewed as cults that do not follow the Christian teachings of orthodox churches.  The Three Grade Servant Church has, like other sects, enjoyed a surge in popularity in recent years and is now estimated to have between 500,000 and 1,000,000 followers.

Officials from orthodox churches said that the sect had been feuding for several years with the Eastern Lighting cult and that both had kidnapped, tortured and injured each other’s adherents.  Chan Kim-kwong, of the Hong Kong Christian Council, said: “They are well known for their brutal ways . . . so many mainstream Christian groups are terrified of them.  “Whether this is a religious freedom issue and whether the killings were motivated by religion, that’s the debatable issue.”

Related Link:  Phoenix Weekly's coverage of the same story - Part 2