di Massimo Introvigne
On December 14, 2017 in the Italian Parliament a press conference called the attention on the members of The Church of Almighty God who escaped China and sought political asylum in Italy. The press conference was reported by several media and attracted the attention on this religious movement, to which Chinese official sources attribute at least three million members. A part of the Roman public was already familiar with this Church because of the beautiful songs it presented earlier in December during the event Mondoreligioni. Others may have read on some newspapers that The Church of Almighty God is a “cult” responsible of serious crimes in China.
Personally, I heard both sides. In 2017, I accepted two invitations by the Chinese Anti-Xie-Jiao Association, a branch of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), to participate in two conferences organized in Zhengzhou, Henan, China, in June, and in Hong Kong in September, where Chinese scholars and police officers presented their theory that The Church of Almighty God is a dangerous “cult.” The word used, “xie jiao,” has however been adopted since the late Ming period to identify “heterodox teachings” proscribed by Chinese governments, a different notion from the Western “cult.” I also interviewed members of The Church of Almighty God in the United States, South Korea, and Italy, and participated in a conference about the problems of its refugees in Seoul, organized by Korean NGOs sympathetic to this Church. And I read several documents, supplied by both sides.
Some information is not controversial. It is generally accepted that The Church of Almighty God is a new religious movement born in China in 1991. Its core teaching is that Jesus Christ returned to Earth as the incarnated Almighty God, a living person who teaches the fullness of truth to purify and save humankind. Although the movement never mentions her name nor any bibliographic details, and cautions that any information supplied by outside sources may be wrong, most scholars believe it identifies the incarnated Almighty God with a Chinese woman, Yang Xiangbin (b. 1973), who was born in northwestern China. In 1989, during the revival of the Chinese House churches (i.e. Protestant churches not recognized by the government), the person identified as the Almighty God gave up his studies and began to utter “powerful words” while attending meetings of the movement founded by Witness Lee (1905-1977), known as the Local Church in the West and as Shouters in China. Many House Churches members believed that those words were from the Holy Spirit and started to read them in their gatherings. Only in 1993, however, the person who was the sources of these messages was recognized as Christ, the incarnate Almighty God. Among those converted to the message and the person of the Almighty God was Zhao Weishan (b. 1951, native of Heilongjiang Province, China), who was at that time a leader in a branch of the Shouters. He was later recognized as the Man Used by the Holy Spirit, and the Priest, the administrative leader, of The Church of the Almighty God. Because of the Chinese persecution, both the person identified as the Almighty God and Zhao Weishan went to the United States in 2000, where they were granted political asylum in 2001. Later, many persecuted believers escaped to South Korea, which became one of the main centers of The Church of Almighty God.
There is also an agreement among external observers about the central teachings of The Church of Almighty God. The Church defines as its member whoever truly believes in God, and is certain that the person it recognized as the Almighty God is the returned Jesus occurring in our days in China, a country which represents, according to The Church of Almighty God, at the same time the place where the Dragon of Revelation manifested itself in the semblance of CCP and where the Second Advent of Jesus Christ must also manifest Himself.
Finally, all sources agree that the CCP regards all the independent religious movements who don’t want to be controlled by the government as dangerous, and that, because of its rapid development and its criticism of CCP in its doctrines, The Church of Almighty God has been severely persecuted in China since its beginnings. Even the Chinese authorities do not deny that being active in The Church of Almighty God is ground for being arrested, and that thousands of devotees are in jail. They justify this campaign by accusing the Church of serious crimes, including a horrific homicide.
On May 28, 2014, a group of “missionaries” entered a McDonald diner in Zhaoyuan, Shandong. and started asking customers for their phone numbers in order to contact them again in the future. One client, Wu Shuoyan (1977-2014), refused to supply her phone number. One of the “missionaries”, Zhang Lidong (1959-2015), beat her to death. Chinese authorities and media claimed that The Church of Almighty God was responsible for the murder and intensified the persecution, which however has started well before. I and other scholars researched the issue on the basis of documents supplied by the same Chinese authorities, and concluded that The Church of Almighty God was not responsible for the crime. At the trial following the crime, Zhang Lidong and other members of the group explicitly declared that they were not members of The Church of Almighty God led by Zhao Weishan and regarded as “Almighty God” two persons, Zhang Lidong’s daughter, Zhang Fan (1984-2015, who was sentenced to death together with her father and executed), and her friend Lü Yingchun (b. 1975). The group can be described as a syncretism with beliefs taken from several different Chinese new religions, and at any rate was not part of The Church of Almighty God. Other accusations of criminal activities against The Church of Almighty God appear even less persuasive. The charge that it “kidnaps” pastor of Christian churches to convert them seems rather a way by mainline Christian denominations in China to explain why so many of their members, including prominent leaders, converted to The Church of Almighty God.
This is what is fascinating in The Church of Almighty God: in its mere twenty-six years of existence, its success has been phenomenal in China, and the international diaspora due to the persecutions has led to the creation of churches in several countries, including in Italy, and the first conversions of non-Chinese. Believers claim that they are not part of a “non-Christian cult,” but rather of a new expression of Christianity, in the sense that they regard Jehovah, Jesus, and the new incarnation of Almighty God as the same only God of the Christian Bible. The idea that God has descended from Heaven and walks among us today may be regarded as not orthodox by other Christians. It is, however, a sign of the times that religions based on contemporary divine hierophanies such as The Church of Almighty God (and others) attract millions of followers, which seem to perceive as believable and reassuring the fact that God has manifested himself in this world to accompany us in these difficult times.