SEOUL—Caught in political limbo as rejected asylum-seekers, about 1,000 Chinese exist furtively in South Korea dreading torture and imprisonment if they are forced to return to China.
They’re all members of the Church of Almighty God, a uniquely Chinese off-shoot of Christianity denounced as an “illegal cult” by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which sees its success winning adherents as a dangerous challenge to a regime that represses all forms of worship, whether Christian, Muslim or Buddhist.
“Many people accept the Word of Almighty God, so the CCP panics,” says a young member who goes by the name of Cecily. “The CCP believes religion is competing with communism.”
Such is the Party’s pervasive intelligence network that no one dares phone a relative back in China, much less engage in online chitchat. “They have internet police,” says Cecily. “If you say ‘Almighty God,’ they will arrest you. They criminalize code words.”
Members gather here in a Church of Almighty God center that looks like a modern office building featuring a museum. On display are pictures and text about the rise of the church from its origins in the 1980s. At first it was one of the many “house churches,” where Christianity is still practiced in China, often secretly. But in 1991, according to the official history, the denomination whose Chinese name translates as “Eastern Lightning” was founded in the belief that Christ is born again and back on Earth in the guise of a mysterious leader of the faith—a woman who may now be living in the New York metropolitan area.
Ever since those early days, the church “suffers really severe persecution,” says Angelia Zheng (a name she has adopted in Korea), talking about what happened to her and her “brothers and sisters” that compelled them to flee. Besides those who have gone to South Korea, about 4,000 are scattered in safe havens in the U.S., Japan, Hong Kong and elsewhere, including Taiwan, the Chinese island province that endures as a separate capitalist state off China’s east coast.
Counting at least “146 believers having been persecuted to death" and claiming "another 400,000 arrested,” Angelia believes the church “suffers really severe persecution,” and is “the single most persecuted religious group in China.”
There’s no way to verify the numbers, but there’s little doubt the Church of Almighty God, with anywhere from several hundred thousand to several million worshippers, ranks very high on the CCP enemies list of religious groups composed mainly of ethnic Chinese. Another would be the Buddhist group Falun Gong.
These crackdowns have intensified under Xi Jinping’s rule along with the ruthless suppression of the Uighurs, an ethnic minority whose 11 million people, mostly Muslim, live in the Xinjiang region in northern China.
The church figures prominently in the most recent U.S. State Department "Report on International Religious Freedom," based on data compiled in 2018, much of which seems to have come from the church itself:
"The Church of Almighty God reported that in April CCP police secretly arrested and tortured one of its members for 25 days," according to the State Department. "The individual was sent to the hospital with severe injuries to the skull and she died several months later. The Church of Almighty God also reported that on June 27, two church members were arrested, and on July 2, one of them was 'persecuted to death' in Chaoyang Municipal Detention Center."
In the church's own newly issued annual report “on the Communist Chinese government’s persecution" it says the numbers of those being persecuted are going up rapidly —1,355 of its followers sentenced in 2019, more than double the number for 2018. According to the church’s report the CCP carried out investigations “door-to-door, person-by-person” aided by “big data technology and information technology tools for the purpose of arresting more Christians through special operations.”
“Things are as bad as they were at the end of the Cultural Revolution,” says J. Gordon Melton, professor of religious history at Baylor University. From 1966 to 1976 as many as 80 million people were killed as Red Guards rampaged across the land in a revolutionary reform movement ordered by Mao Zedong. “The Church of Almighty God is suffering most,” says Melton. “Any of those who return are arrested as soon as they get off the plane.”
Melton, who has visited both China and South Korea many times in recent years, sees the Church of Almighty God as the principal target of a massive campaign in which Xi has ordered portraits of himself and Mao to hang side by side in state-sanctioned Catholic and Protestant churches. “Xi wants them to remove crosses,” he says. “Xi doesn’t want them to look like churches. He doesn’t want you to know it’s a church as you’re walking by.”
About half of China’s 80 to 100 million Christians attend churches that have survived legally if uneasily under arrangements in which the government appoints or approves their leaders. In 2018, Pope Francis reached a “provisional agreement” with China, the details of which remain secret. It reportedly allows Beijing to name bishops, but supposedly leaves it to the pope to sign off on them.
Meanwhile, millions of Chinese worship in “house churches,” conducting services for small congregations in unmarked facilities, with or without the knowledge or tacit approval of authorities.
Then there are about 20 totally banned congregations, the most prominent of which is the Church of Almighty God. They are labeled as criminal cults. “They challenge the government and the new Sinicization program that President Xi has put out,” says Melton. The campaign against the Church of Almighty God, he says, is similar to that against the Falun Gong, a Buddhist organization with a global following that’s been virtually annihilated inside China but thrives among Chinese communities worldwide.
It was to escape brutal interrogation and torture that members of the Church of Almighty God began coming to Korea, taking advantage of a policy under which droves of Chinese vacationers inundate the scenic island of Jeju off Korea’s southern coast on one-month tourist visas available on arrival.
Church people, not interested in the beauties of Jeju, then fly to the Korean mainland where they request asylum as victims of oppression. In every case they are turned down but then promptly granted extensions that keep them reapplying every three months, unable to work legally but still not deported to China and certain imprisonment.
Even that avenue may be closing, however, since South Korea placed stringent controls on travel from Jeju to the mainland. About 30 Church of Almighty God members are still stuck in Jeju. At the same time, the Chinese are getting tougher on issuing passports, absolutely denying them to anyone suspected of connections to the Church of Almighty God or other “criminal” sects.
Members of the church meeting in Seoul tell harrowing tales of suffering, loneliness and separation from families with whom they now have no contact. One of them, called Jason, describes having been imprisoned for three years, making shoes and weaving for 10 hours a day, eating moldy bread, drinking soup from a tureen in which dirt and sand were visible at the bottom. “They ordered prisoners to sing anthems,” he says. “If you break regulations, they will beat you.”
A middle-aged woman who goes by the name of Xiang Yi, meaning “belief in God,” describes a life on the run for 12 years inside China before getting here four years ago. “They went to my home to arrest me, but I had already left the house for my sister’s house. I risked my life to get my passport.” She had no time to say good-bye to her son, with whom she has not been in touch since coming to Korea, and she’s never seen her granddaughter born nearly two years ago.
Another adherent, who calls himself Jamie Chao, made it here at about the same time after having been arrested, held for a week, severely beaten on the head and legs, and then let go. “After I was released, my wife was arrested,” he says. “The police went to the house, confiscated material.” Now, he says, his wife is in hiding, afraid to go anywhere for fear the police will send her back to prison.
Suppression “is getting worse and worse,” says Jamie, while the CCP under Xi exerts near-total control. The Communist Chinese Party “is becoming more and more tyrannical,” he says. “The party has grassroots committees everywhere.”
Not surprisingly, the Church of Almighty God is bitterly anti-communist, although members insist they’re not against Xi Jinping’s regime per se, just its treatment of them and other religious groupings.
Early statements of the church refer to the regime as “the evil red dragon of the Bible,” and a brochure published in English says flatly, “The CCP is an atheist dictatorship that hates the truth and is hostile to the work of God.” The party, it says, “is terrified that Christians will widely testify to and spread God’s work so that people will all accept the true way and reject the CCP, threatening its dictatorship.”
That’s why, says the brochure, “The CCP government has branded Christianity and Catholicism as ‘cults’ and labeled the Bible a ‘book of cults.’” As a result of this unremitting campaign, it goes on, “many house churches have been forcibly shut down, assemblies have been outlawed and countless Christians have been arrested”—some “tortured to death” while “prominent pastors and church leaders have also been killed by the CCP.”
The official version from the Chinese authorities, of course, is quite different. After the murder of a woman in a McDonald’s in eastern China in May 2014, authorities said the killers were self-styled church “missionaries” who called her “a demon” after she refused to give her cellphone number, and then beat her to death. (The Daily Beast covered the incident and its context extensively at the time.)
The police have also said church fanatics brainwash recruits, according to Xinhua, the state New China News Agency. An officer was quoted as saying at first “new recruits were not forced to donate or attend gatherings, but after becoming a convert they were manipulated into leaving their family and devoting everything to the cult.”
Today, scholars tend to support the response of church members that another group was to blame for the McDonald’s murder. The CCP, says the church, has been waging a propaganda campaign accusing the church of numerous offenses in its campaign to destroy it as it did the Falun Gong.
“Most of what you find on the Internet about The Church of Almighty God is false,” says Massimo Introvigne, director of the Center for Studies on New Religions in Turin, Italy. “Chinese propaganda shows pictures of people beaten and mutilated by the CAG but has failed to produce any more specific evidence, detail, or court record, related to the prosecution of CAG members for these alleged crimes.”
As for the McDonald’s killing, “Scholars have unequivocally concluded that the assassins were not related to the CAG,” says Introvigne, author of Inside The Church of Almighty God: The Most Persecuted Religious Movement in China, coming out in March. “The Chinese regime attributed the crime to the CAG to justify its persecution at home and abroad.”
Eager to denounce Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party, however, The Church of God remains quite secretive about who is providing the funding, who is really supporting those who have escaped the clutches of Chinese authorities, and who is directing operations in China and abroad.
The group says its real founder is God Almighty, but acknowledges an earthly priest, Zhao Weishan, in charge of “administrative affairs.” Massimo Introvigne in his book says the church's God incarnate is a woman named Yang Xiangbin, born in 1973 in northwestern China, but the church confirms neither her name nor her background out of “reverence for God.” Zhao and the mystery woman are believed to be in the New York City area, looking for donations and supporting activities at another church center in Flushing, of all places, but no one admits having seen them.
Here in Seoul, polite, neatly attired church members do not talk about any of this stuff, indicating they themselves do not know the answers, but remain committed by faith to the vision of Jesus on earth. It’s all set forth in the holy book, a 2446-page tome that’s been translated and published in 27 languages. “A Record of the Period of Almighty God’s Utterances,” is how it’s described. The title: The Word Appears in the Flesh.
Holly Folk, a professor at Western Washington University, is sympathetic. “Once you examine the track record,” she says, “you realize none of the accusations are true.” Analyzing the campaign against the CAG, “You see the exact same move by the Chinese government against the Falun Gong.”
As for the image of God incarnate, says Folk, “they are extraordinarily Calvinist, their theology is similar to the theology of the Puritans.” A theme, she says, is predestination —the sense that God has preordained the fate of all living things.
Sure, she concedes, “there are certain things they do, they use false names and are doing this covert stuff,” but that’s because “they are worried about immigration”—permanent residence abroad—to save them from forced repatriation to China. As for those elusive leaders in New York, they “are concerned about assassination.”
No way are these fervent adherents here in Seoul going to speculate on any of that. They lapse into silence when asked who are the real leaders, where they are, who’s giving them directions or who’s paying the bills. It all comes down to one thing, they say,“God on Earth.”