Religious Freedom and persecution in China:
The case of the Church of Almighty God

Joint Submission by

Coordination des Associations et des Particuliers pour la Liberté de Conscience (CAP LC);

CESNUR (Center for Studies on New Religions);

EIFRF (European Interreligious Forum for Religious Freedom),

FOB (European Federation for Freedom of Belief),

ORLIR (International Observatory of Religious Liberty of Refugees),

CAP LC, the Coordination des Associations et des Particuliers pour la Liberté de Conscience, is a NGO with ECOSOC consultative status, specialized in combating religious intolerance and discrimination. Web site:

CESNUR, the Center for Studies on New Religions, established in Italy in 1988 and recognized by the Italian administration as a not-for-profit association of “special cultural value,” is the largest international association of scholars specialized in the study of new religious movements. Its yearly international conference is the main academic event in this field. Web sites:,, and

EIFRF, the European Interreligious Forum for Religious Freedom, is an association registered in France as a not-for profit association officially recognized by the French administration as being of “philanthropic general interest.” Its aim is to promote religious freedom through inter-religious dialogue. Web site:

FOB, the European Federation for Freedom of Belief, incorporated in Rome in 2015, has been formed to advocate freedom of thought, religion and belief and support the European Union Program for the Promotion and Protection of Freedom of Religion and Belief. Web site:

ORLIR, the International Observatory of Religious Liberty of Refugees, is a newly (2017) created organization, based in Torino, Italy, whose founders have a long experience in the fields of religion-based refugee claims. ORLIR’s president, Ms. Rosita Šorytė, worked as a Lithuanian diplomat for twenty-five years, and in 2012-2013 served as Chairperson of the European Union Working Group on Humanitarian Aid on behalf of the Lithuanian pro tempore presidency of the EU. Web site:

Executive Summary

This submission addresses the following areas:

– Freedom of Religion and Belief

– Torture and Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment

– Extrajudicial Executions

– Arbitrary Detention and Imprisonment

– Freedom of Speech, Assembly, and Association

– Freedom from Discrimination, the Right to Work, the Right to Educatio

  1. Historical Background

1.1. In China, in 1989, a religious revival involved both the House Churches (i.e. the Protestant Churches whose activity is not authorized by the government) and the religious movement known as the Shouters, originating from the Chinese preachers Watchman Nee (1903–1972) and Witness Lee (1905–1997). In the same year 1989, the person later identified as Almighty God by her followers began participating in meetings of the Shouters. In 1991, she began to utter words that followers compared, for authority and power, to those expressed by Jesus Christ. Many Christians started reading these utterances and believing they were “what the Spirit says to the Churches” (Rev 2:7, 17). Among these was Zhao Weishan, who would later become the administrative leader of the movement. Not until 1993 did the readers of the utterances start believing that their author was the incarnate God, the second coming of Jesus Christ and Almighty God, the unique God. The movement, born in 1991, became known as The Church of Almighty God (CAG, also known as Eastern Lightning). While stating that God incarnated in our time in a female human being, the CAG never mentions her name. Several scholars identify her with Yang Xiangbin, a woman born in 1973 in northwestern China.

1.2 In the mid-1990s, a severe persecution targeted both the Shouters and the CAG. Since then the CAG has been continuously and severely persecuted in China. In 2000, Zhao and Yang went to the United States, and in 2001 they were granted political asylum. Since then, they have directed the movement from New York. In early 2009, He Zhexun, who used to oversee the work of the Church in Mainland China, was arrested and sentenced to 14 years in prison. He is still in custody. On July 17, 2009, Ma Suoping (female, 1969–2009), who took over He Zhexun’s role, was also arrested and died while in custody (Introvigne 2017b).

1.3 The CAG is a millenarian movement and believes that the appearance of Almighty God inaugurated the third age of sacred history, the Age of Kingdom, which follows the Age of Law, i.e. the time of the Old Testament, and the Age of Grace, which went from the birth of Jesus to the advent of Almighty God in the 20th century. When the ministry of Almighty God on Earth will be completed, the catastrophes prophesied in the Book of Revelation in the Bible and the Age of Millennial Kingdom will follow, and those purified by Almighty God’s work in the Age of Kingdom will live forever on a transformed Earth (Folk 2018).

1.4 China, according to the CAG, is both where Almighty God has appeared as the “Eastern Lightning” mentioned by the Bible (Matthew, 24:27) and where the evil “Great Red Dragon” of the Book of Revelation manifested itself in the semblance of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its persecution of Christians. This criticism of the CCP is one of the main causes of the persecution of the CAG in China.

  1. Accusation of Crimes

2.1 Paradoxically, new impetus to the previously scarce academic study of the CAG by Western specialists of new religious movements was given in 2017 by the Chinese authorities themselves. The Chinese Anti-XieJiao Association, which has direct ties with the CCP, invited twice several leading Western scholars to seminars organized in Zhengzhou, Henan, in June, and in Hong Kong in September, devoted to exploring the notion of xie jiao and to offer critical perspectives on the CAG. One of the scholars was Massimo Introvigne, managing director of one of the NGOs signing this submission (CESNUR). See the article published in the Web site of Chinese governmental media conglomerate KKNews (2017).

2.2 During these academic exchanges, as they usually do, Chinese authorities tried to justify the persecution of the CAG by arguing that its members committed serious crimes. However, the documents supplied by the same Chinese authorities on the most famous of these crimes, the homicide of a woman in a McDonald’s diner in Zhaoyuan in 2014, proved that the assassins were not members of the CAG. They belonged in fact to a different religious movement that, while using the words “Almighty God” in its name, regarded as Almighty God(s) returned to Earth persons different from the one the CAG recognizes as Almighty God, and had nothing to do with the CAG. In fact, the assassins themselves declared they were not members of the CAG that is led by Zhao Weishan and struck by the CCP authorities (Introvigne 2017a; Introvigne and Bromley 2017).

2.3 Another frequent accusation was that in 2013, in the Chinese province of Shaanxi, members of the CAG gouged out the eyes of a six-year old boy. American academic Holly Folk (who was another of the scholars invited to the 2017 conferences in China) studied the related documents and concluded that the crime was committed by the boy’s aunt, the CAG had nothing to do with it, and accusations against the church were spread by Chinese anti-cultists in the aftermath of the McDonald’s homicide, several months after the police investigation had been closed (Folk 2017).

2.4 Opponents of the CAG also claim that in 2002 it kidnapped 34 pastors and lay leaders of a large Christian House Church, the China Gospel Fellowship (CGF). Again, Introvigne collected and studied the available documents, and concluded that the violence that would justify the label of “kidnapping” was absent, and the story as told by CGF and other hostile sources was largely unbelievable (Introvigne 2018).

2.5 The CAG has also been accused of predicting the end of the world for 2012, within the global framework of the 2012 phenomenon, based on prophecies attributed to the Maya civilization, causing riots and even crimes around China. This was another justification used by Chinese authorities to arrest a great number of members of the CAG, though in fact they just preached the Gospel peacefully. Australian scholar Emily Dunn, in what was the first scholarly book devoted to the CAG in 2015, noted that, like many Chinese, some “members of Eastern Lightning embraced the Mayan prophecy” but they “appear to have done so without sanction from the group’s self-proclaimed authorities,” who in fact declared “Mayan” and other theories about the end of the world as theologically and factually “mistaken” (Dunn 2015, 95). The Church also maintains that some flyers and brochures depicted in Chinese anti-xiejiao Web sites as evidence of its 2012 prophecies were in fact either fabricated or derived from alterations of existing materials of the CAG (Introvigne 2017b).

2.6 It is also important to note that China started persecuting the CAG several years before the alleged crimes, confirming that the persecution was not motivated by accusations of crimes but by the CAG’s doctrine, regarded as incompatible with CCP’s ideology.

2.7 Another reason for the persecution of the CAG is its phenomenal expansion, which made the CCP literally panic. In 2014, Chinese authorities estimated that it had four million members in China (Ma 2014). Some scholars regard this figure as possibly exaggerated, but admit that the situation in China makes statistics difficult to collect.

  1. Legal Framework

3.1 Particularly relevant for the case of the CAG are the provisions of Chinese law concerning the xie jiao. Chinese governmental documents in English translate xie jiao as “evil cults,” but this is not completely accurate and reflects a strategy aimed at eliciting the sympathy of those opposed to “cults” in the West. The words xie jiao were used since the Ming Dynasty era to identify “heterodox teachings,” or teachings not approved by the government (Goossaert and Palmer 2011, 27). Groups were listed, or not listed, as xie jiao based on both theological and political evaluations. Christianity as a whole, including Catholicism, was listed by Chinese authorities as xie jiao and exposed to persecution in 1725, but went out of the list in 1842, because of Western military pressure (Goossaert and Palmer 2011, 31). This policy was continued by the Chinese Republic and by the CCP regime.

3.2 An official English translation of the Chinese Criminal Code has been published by the Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the United Nations and Other International Organizations in Vienna (n.d.). Article 300, in that translation, reads as follows: “Whoever organizes and utilizes superstitious sects, secret societies, and evil religious organizations or sabotages the implementation of the state’s laws and executive regulations by utilizing superstition is to be sentenced to not less than three years and not more than seven years of fixed-term imprisonment; when circumstances are particularly serious, to not less than seven years of fixed-term imprisonment.” “Utilizes” means in fact “is active in.” Not only do the Chinese media often report that somebody has been arrested and sentenced for the mere fact of being a member of a xie jiao (see e.g. 2013) but, during the Zhengzhou and Hong Kong conferences, leading police officers explained to the invited Western academics that it is enough to be identified as a member of a xie jiao, and particularly of the CAG, in order to be arrested and kept in jail for the time needed for what they called a “re-education process.” They also explained that the mention of “particularly serious circumstances” allows much harsher penalties to be imposed. This information came from the Chinese authorities, but it confirmed what the NGOs signing this submission were told in interviews with several members of the CAG in South Korea, the United States, and Europe.

3.3 But how does the CCP define xie jiao? The most recent attempt to date resulted in Rule 1 of the Interpretations on the Issues Concerning the Application of Laws in Criminal Cases Relating to Organizing and Utilizing Evil Organizations to Destroy Law Enforcement, issued on January 25, 2017, by the People’s Supreme Court and the Office of the People’s Supreme Attorney, interpreting Article 300 of the Criminal Code. Xie jiao were defined as “illegal organizations, which, through fraudulent use of religion, qi gong, or any other name, by deifying and promoting their ringleaders, or by fabricating and spreading superstitious fallacies and other means to confuse and deceive others (…), control group members and harm society” (The Supreme People’s Procuratorate of the People’s Republic of China 2017). Previous definitions were similar to the one of 2017 (Irons 2018). Such a vague definition perpetuates the possibility for the power to list as xie jiao any group the CCP does not like.

3.4 In practice, in China, the groups regarded as xie jiao are those included in the lists published since 1995 and periodically updated. The CAG has consistently appeared in all these lists of xie jiao (Irons 2018).

3.5 Chinese authorities have declared repeatedly that destroying xie jiao, and the CAG in particular, is among their priorities, and that they should be “completely eradicated as a tumor” (Gu 2014). Monetary rewards have been offered to those who report to the police members of the CAG (see Pingtan County 2015 and Shandong Anti-Cult Association 2017; Taiyuan News 2017).

3.6 Chinese government-controlled media have reported often that CAG devotees have been arrested for the only reason that they belong to the CAG, even if they are not accused of any further crime (see e.g. 2013). The well-known NGO Freedom House reported that eighty percent of those arrested between 2014 and 2016 as members of “heterodox religions” (i.e. xie jiao) were members of the CAG (Cook 2017, 48).

  1. Freedom of Religion and Belief

4.1 Overview of Violations

4.1.1 The period since January 2014 has been characterized by continued, severe violations of the human rights of members of the CAG, including forced conversions, arbitrary detention, torture, extrajudicial killings, restrictions on freedom of expression and association, and officially sanctioned discrimination. These abuses have occurred in the context of targeted systematic crackdowns initiated by Chinese authorities.

4.2 Forced Religious Conversion

4.2.1 We receive daily reports from China that members of the CAG are arrested as active in a xie jiao, as mandated by Article 300 of the Chinese Criminal Code. Those arrested and sentenced are sent to “labor camps” where they are forced to work, often in inhumane conditions, and are simultaneously subject to a process of “re-education,” aimed at forcing them to renounce their faith. Scholars who participated in the 2017 conferences against the CAG in China were offered testimonies by some ex-members who claimed to have been successfully “re-educated.” Members of the CAG who managed to escape China report all sort of pressures in the “labor camps” (including torture) to induce them to sign declarations repudiating their religious faith.

4.2.2 A typical case concerns Ban Rongge. He was arrested for being active in the CAG and sentenced to four years on July 25, 2013. As stated in the affidavit sworn by his co-religionist Cao Liming, who was detained with him in the same Henan Prison No. 1 Ban was routinely beaten and tortured in the attempt to compel him to sign a declaration of apostasy from his faith. Since he refused, tortures continued until he was released from jail on December10, 2016, and had to be committed to a psychiatric hospital (see Affidavit A).

4.3 Legal Framework

4.3.1 It is important to note that Chinese law itself denies freedom of religion and belief, as it stipulates in Article 300 of the Chinese Criminal Code that being active in a group listed as a xie jiao is a crime punished by imprisonment from three to seven years or more. In at least 160 such cases, verdicts have been published in the Chinese official Web site

4.3.2 For a representative case, see the case of Qin Hongguang at On June 5, 2017, Qin was sentenced to four years and sixth months in prison for “using” a xie jiao, which means being an evangelist of the CAG, attending gatherings regularly, preaching the Gospel to others, and keeping books and other materials of the church in his home.

  1. Torture and Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment (CIDT)

5.0.1 The use of torture against members of the CAG in China remains widespread and systematic. Reports of abuse, including photographs and first-hand accounts, continue to be received from contacts in China daily. Torture is used to force religious conversion, as well as to extract information on the whereabouts and activities of other individuals.

5.0.2 Torture also happens in cases where members of the Church are not formally committed to trial. For example, on 24 October 2016, two members of the CAG from the Pukou District in Jiangsu Province, 46-year-old Chen Qicai and his wife, 47-year-old Zhou Youxia, were arrested by the Chinese police. During their detention, police put drugs into their food and tortured them, leaving them unconscious repeatedly. Both Chen Qicai and Zhou Youxia suffered serious mental and physical scars because of the torture (see Affidavit B by Song Qingqing, who heard Chen and Zhou telling their experience of persecution personally in China).

5.1 Legal framework

5.1.1 The widespread use of torture against members of the CAG is a direct violation of numerous articles of Chinese and international law. These include Articles 43 of the PRC Criminal Procedural Law, which prohibits collecting evidence or extorting a confession through torture or threat, enticement or deceit; and Article 247 of the Criminal Law, and the Convention Against Torture, ratified by the PRC in 1988. Although the use of torture against members of the CAG is a violation of Chinese law, it is consistent with CCP security forces’ manner of handling of groups deemed as the Party’s ideological enemies. This status is indicated by Party propaganda calling for the “eradication like a tumor” of the CAG from Chinese society (Gu 2014), and the use of various forms of ideological justification to tacitly or explicitly encourage the use of torture against members of the CAG. All levels of the CCP hierarchy, including the Politburo Standing Committee, have engaged in such calls to eradication of xie jiao by any judicial and extra-judicial means. As the CCP is above all legal restraint in China, anti-torture provisions do not effectively constrain its security forces’ treatment of members of the CAG.

5.2 Conditions on the Ground

5.2.1 The CAG has reported in 2017 that 43,640 of its members were subjected to various methods of torture (The Church of Almighty God 2017). A substantial number of cases have been documented on the Church’s Web site (The Church of Almighty God n.d.). We personally interviewed members of the Church who escaped China and reported to have been tortured, and others who claimed that their relatives or friends were tortured or died in custody. Obviously, the Chinese authorities did not confirm to the scholars invited to the 2017 conferences against the CAG that tortures happen in their jails, but the virulence of the language they used when they spoke of CAG as a “tumor” to be eradicated by any means, is a clue that should induce to take these reports very seriously.

5.2.2 One tragic case concerns Ms. Zhang Ruixia, born in 1961, a native of Qingfeng County, Puyang City, Henan Province. On June 25, 2014, more than ten policemen under Captain Ma Zhihong of the Linzhou City Public Security Bureau’s State Security Brigade in the Anyang District, Henan Province, arrested Zhang and another Christian (without showing any credentials) and took them to the Linzhou City Public Security Bureau’s Criminal Investigation Brigade. Zhang was tortured to death during detention at age 53. After Zhang died, the police concealed the news of her death. It was not until half a year later that Zhang’s family heard the news from another Christian. When her family finally saw Zhang, she was already a desiccated, bony and unrecognizable corpse. (See Affidavit C by Liu Yangkun, who was personally familiar with Zhang’s family in China.)

5.3 Impunity and Prospects for Reform

5.3.1 Legal reform efforts have failed to address the use of torture against members of the CAG, while extralegal directives from the CCP have instead implicitly encouraged its continued use. Amendments to the Criminal Procedure Law purport to strictly forbid torture and incorporates the goal of “protecting human rights.” However, the amendments do not specify mechanisms of supervision or enforcement of discipline for violations of its provisions. Rather, it may obfuscate the ongoing widespread use of torture, which has continued unabated in the cases of members of the CAG.

5.3.2 Impunity is routine for acts of torture against members of the CAG. Instead, claiming that members of the Church have been “re-educated” and have signed declarations renouncing their faith is a criterion for promotions and bonuses for prison and labor camp guards, creating an incentive to torture believers.

  1. Extrajudicial Executions

6.1 Conditions on the Ground

6.1.1 Reports continue to be received of Church members dying in custody. CAG has documented 44 cases of Church members who died in custody or shortly after their release (The Church of Almighty God n.d.). Given the CCP’s efforts to obstruct the investigation of Church members’ untimely deaths, the actual death tolls are likely significantly higher.

6.2 Impunity

6.2.1 Authorities rarely investigate deaths in custody of members of CAG and perpetrators enjoy impunity. Instead, authorities often attempt to thwart investigations into the cause of death and punish requests for legal redress. Family members who have pressed for investigations have suffered retribution, including detentions, beatings, and imprisonment.

  1. Arbitrary Detention and Imprisonment

7.1 Legal framework

7.1.1 Article 9 of the ICCPR provides that “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention. No one shall be deprived of his liberty except on such grounds and in accordance with such procedure as are established by law.”

7.2. Overview of Conditions on the Ground

7.2.1 Members of the CAG continue to be systematically subjected to arbitrary detention and imprisonment without due process. We have reviewed several hundred judicial documents (most of them available online: see The Church of Almighty God n.d.) from different Chinese provinces and administrative regions, alongside other evidence related to the sentencing of members of the Church(se the website “Judicial Opinions of China” at This research has revealed clear patterns of widespread violations of Church members’ basic rights, including: being sentenced for peaceful speech and religious activities, the use of vague legal provisions that render legal defense ineffective, having a few personal religious texts used as the pretext for a long prison sentence, being denied access to legal representation, and not having family notified of the trial process.

7.3 Reeducation-Through-Labor (RTL) Facilities

7.3.1 Since 1991, hundreds of thousands of members of The Church of the Almighty God have been arbitrarily detained in the RTL system, typically for several years. Church members held in the camps report working long hours in unsafe and unsanitary conditions, while facing psychological and physical torture. In 2010, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak described the RTL system itself and the standard treatment of detainees therein as constituting a form of “inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, if not mental torture” (Nowak 2010).

  1. Freedom of expression, association, and assembly

8.1 The freedom of expression of members of the CAG and their supporters is severely curtailed. Content related to the CAG remains among the most censored on the Chinese internet. CAG adherents have no voice in state-run media, and sympathetic coverage of the issue is nonexistent. Individuals who transmit evidence of human rights abuses to contacts outside China are detained and imprisoned.

8.2 Large numbers of members of the CAG have been detained and imprisoned after security forces entered their homes without a warrant and discovered Church-related literature. Police have also detained Chinese citizens simply for being members of the CAG, with thousands of them sent to RTL and prison, and some killed in custody.

8.3 As mentioned earlier, Chinese authorities also offer monetary rewards to citizens who report to the police members of the CAG and provide information leading to their arrest.

8.4 Members of the CAG who peacefully assemble for religious meetings and worship risk arrest and imprisonment. Security forces also periodically conduct raids on private homes where members of the CAG are gathering; participants are often then sent to prisons, RTL camps and forced conversion centers.

  1. Right to Privacy

9.1 Members of the CAG throughout China continue to be subjected to systematic surveillance of their movements, arbitrary searches of their homes, and monitoring of private communications. Local “610 Offices,” whose mandate is to repress xie jiao, routinely order 24-hour surveillance of devotees’ homes, try to maintain databases of members of the CAG, and make harassing visits to practitioners recently released from custody. These practices appear to be widespread.

  1. Discrimination and Violations of Social and Economic Rights

10.1 Since 1995, members of the CAG and their family members have faced discrimination at work, discrimination in education, denial of pensions, pay reductions, or dismissal based on their religious beliefs.

10.2 CCP authorities continue to stigmatize and incite hate against the CAG. Aggressive campaigns were launched in several Chinese provinces. In addition, the CCP has exported these campaigns abroad. Western media were manipulated into publishing fake news accusing the CAG of crimes of which it was innocent, including the 2014 murder in the Zhaoyuan McDonald’s. Individual members of the CAG who fled China have been harassed in multiple ways. In a typical case, in April 2015, Zhang Fu escaped persecution by moving to South Korea. In May 2016, the CCP incited Zhang’s wife, surnamed Tian, into coming to South Korea with an agent of the Chinese Security. They ensnared Zhang Fu into visiting a hotel, and while he was asleep they took the opportunity to steal his passport and cell phones. They wanted to force Zhang Fu to return to China, but at the last minute he succeeded in a thrilling escape at the airport. In August 2016 and November 2017, the CCP incited Ms. Tian twice into returning to South Korea to create trouble for the CAG together with some people of unknown identity. They made use of foreign media to manufacture public opinion and try to force Zhang Fu to return to China, and they spread disparaging rumors about the CAG (See Affidavit D, by Zhang Fu).

  1. Conclusions and Recommendations

11.1 Conclusion

11.1.1 The persecution against the CAG has, since its inception, been a political campaign operating outside the legal system. No reform plan announced or publicly contemplated by Party officials has made any mention of redressing the situation of xie jiao and the CAG, or ending the extreme human rights violations suffered by China’s most at-risk detainee population. Rather, CCP documents continue to articulate their goal of eradicating the CAG through extrajudicial imprisonment, propaganda, censorship, officially sanctioned discrimination, and coercive religious conversion. In February 2018, “striking at The Church of Almighty God” was described by official media outlets as the second “special action” for the police in Hainan Province, and a parallel action was launched in Hubei Province (People’s Daily 2018).

11.2 Recommendations

– The CCP must immediately end its campaign pursuing the eradication of the CAG.

– Chinese authorities must respect freedom of expression and allow free circulation of information concerning the CAG.

– Chinese security agencies must cease imprisoning, detaining, and sentencing members of the CAG for the peaceful exercise of their rights to free expression, conscience, and association. All Church members currently imprisoned for exercising these rights must be released.

– The CCP must immediately end its efforts to promote hatred against the CAG in China and abroad, and must stop sanctioning discrimination against members of the CAG in the workplace and the education system.

– A transparent national investigation should be conducted into the labor camps, prisons and other facilities where members of the CAG are held, often without due process. Information on the names, locations, and detainee populations should be made available to domestic and international monitors. Members of the CAG in this system must be accounted for, and the names of those who have died in custody revealed. In the latter case, families must be notified of the circumstances of their relative’s death.

– Reforms must be undertaken to ensure judicial oversight of Chinese security forces, freedom from interference by CCP officials in judicial decision-making, and fair and effective legal representation for all persons tried in Chinese courts.

The violations committed against the CAG have occurred on a scale that makes comprehensive accounting a significant challenge. Justice and accountability can take many forms but require at least a good faith investigation into the abuses committed and into the individuals most responsible. International participation, in particular oversight by U.N. observers and Chinese and international civil society representatives, is fundamental to the legitimacy of such a process.


Affidavit A (Cao Liming)

Affidavit B (Song Qingqing)

Affidavit C (Liu Yangkun)

Affidavit D (Zhang Fu)

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