5 Jun 2011

Debut novel based on author's childhood in infamous apocalyptic cult Worldwide Church of God

Whitehorse Leader - Australia June 2, 2011

Former Box Hill student tells of life in a doomsday cult


AUTHOR Benjamin Grant Mitchell is no longer ashamed to tell people he was born into a doomsday cult.

The writer and former Neighbours actor has self-published his debut novel, The Last Great Day - a fictionalised story about his family’s life in the infamous Worldwide Church of God.

Now 42 and living happily in a sprawling Warrandyte home with his wife, Pauli, and their nine-month-old daughter, Honey Rose, Mitchell speaks without bitterness about the atmosphere of deceit and oppression that shaped his early years.

“We left when I was 10. I had a hard time as a teenager and in my 20s,” he said.

“So for a lot of years I didn’t talk about it and felt shameful and thought, ‘What will people think?’ But I’m happy to be honest and talk about it now because we didn’t do anything wrong.”

Co-founded in America’s northwest by former advertising executive Herbert W. Armstrong and Mad magazine comic artist Basil Wolverton, the cult prophesied the world would end in 1975.

Contact with non-members was discouraged, the sect forbade celebration of birthdays or medical intervention and followers were forced to give 30 per cent of their income to the church.

Armstrong became so wealthy he purchased his own Gulfstream jet.

“If they told you everything at the start, you wouldn’t have joined,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell’s father was a minister in the church in Manchester, England, when Mitchell was born.

The family was ordered to move to Australia in 1970 to spread the word.

Despite his young age, Mitchell’s memories are still vivid of the terrible consequences of the church’s ban on hospital treatment.

His aunt died in labour and his mother lost newborn twin boys.

“Obviously Mum chose to comply, but she was bullied by a very oppressive atmosphere,” he said. “Everyone was afraid of being told they were going against the church.”

The Mitchells left the cult after the prophesied 1975 armageddon failed to eventuate and because the church was being investigated for tax evasion and child sexual abuse.

“Armstrong was always talking about us all going to Petra, the place of safety and salvation,” Mitchell said.

For more information or to order the book visit the author's website at:

This article was found at:


Prosecutor: child abuse by religious parents akin to "medieval times"

Child-abuse victims' lives were 'a horror story'

Oregon parents face 25 each in charges of child abuse

California mother slit throats of daughters to protect them from suffering after apocalypse on May 21, 2011

Canadian apocalyptic cult leader who maimed and murdered followers in religious rituals killed in prison

Stairway to Heaven: Treating children in the crosshairs of trauma

'Arming' for Armageddon: Militant Joel's Army Followers Seek Theocracy

Apocalyptic cult leader dies, doomsday predictions never materialized

Confused California cult leader just the latest false prophet to endanger followers with apocalyptic fever

Apocalyptic Arizona cult controls members, competes with Scientology for weirdest sci-fi cult

Russian sex cult leader "from the star Sirius" charged with rape, sexual abuse and human rights violations

Novel Faiths Find Followers Among Russia's Disillusioned

Waiting for Armageddon

Sect members dig tunnel, await apocalypse in Central Russia

Cult leader seeks to free children, official says

Second group of cult followers awaits apocalypse in Penza, Russia

Sects and sex abuse: battle of the apocalyptic sex cults

Cult survivors reveal deranged mind of messianic leader of Australian cult Zion Full Ministry 


  1. Hi Perry,

    Thanks for spreading the word about The Last Great Day.

    There are many off-shoots of the defunct Worldwide Church of God and, though most of my readers have never experienced fundamentalist religions like those WCG spawned, I think people still following many of WCG's teachings may enjoy the story too.


  2. Benjamin Mitchell: Life in a sect provides novel inspiration. BY BEAU DONELLY

    Melbourne Weekly Eastern 23 Aug, 2011

    WHEN Benjamin Grant Mitchell decided to write a novel based on his life, he had plenty of material to work with. The former Neighbours actor, singer-songwriter and new father was born into an American doomsday cult. To top it off, his father was one of the ministers.

    Mitchell, who now lives in Warrandyte, started penning his story three years ago and next week will unveil the debut novel, The Last Great Day, at the Melbourne Writers Festival.

    The 42-year-old, who played Neighbours character Cameron Hudson in the 1990s, spent his early childhood moving around Australia, then settled at the Worldwide Church of God headquarters in Los Angeles.

    Based on a family’s struggle with its faith and the consequences of choices made decades ago, the novel charts the course of Mitchell’s life.
    “It took a long time to build the confidence to be able to write a gripping story rather than a memoir,” says Mitchell. “It’s based very closely on my family [but] I wrote it as a novel so I didn’t put words in my parents’ mouths. The novel makes it very freeing.”

    Despite Mitchell’s efforts to respect his parents, they have refused to read his book, which he has published independently.

    “I felt that writing it was an act of love and I tried to share my story with them but they weren’t interested in hearing it,” says Mitchell, whose father quit his post following a US 60 Minutes exposé in the late 1970s that alleged corruption and sexual abuse within the church.

    “I feel like I’ve finally taken that step away from them and disappointed them,’’ Mitchell says. ‘‘All children want their parents’ love but there’s a time when enough is enough. If they don’t want to read it, I have nothing else to say to them.’’

    As a child, Mitchell was disciplined with leather belts and wooden paddles and he grew up believing the world would end when he was six. “I didn’t know anything else,” he says. “It wasn’t until I went to high school in Melbourne that I realised I was the minority.’’

    Mitchell was nine when his family left the church and he has strong memories of the turbulent time.

    “I sensed the drama unfolding around me; we were excommunicated, we owned nothing and we were broke. This was a real turning point in my life because I became a normal kid.”

    Mitchell says his adult life is pretty normal, too. A stay-at-home dad, his most treasured possession – apart from one-year-old daughter Honey Rose – is a 20-year-old nylon-string guitar he bought for $79. But with his daily routine of promoting his book, writing another and changing nappies keeping him busy, it might be a while before he finds time to play it.

    The book is available at benjamingrantmitchell.com


  3. Youth protection takes 10 children among followers of 'guru'

    CBC News Nov 28, 2012

    Youth protection officials from Quebec's Montérégie region have taken custody of 10 children who had allegedly been living with followers of a self-styled prophet of the apocalypse in Arizona.

    Marcel Pontbriand, a former businessman from Beloeil, Que, who claims he can heal the sick and perform exorcisms, has been living in Marana, Ariz., with his followers and some children.

    He moved to the Marana area after facing a slew of accusations stemming from an illegal investment scheme he masterminded while living in Quebec.

    Border services officials intercepted the children in Vancouver on Monday. The children, who were accompanied by two adults, were heading into Canada from the U.S.

    It is unclear why the children and the two adults were crossing the border.

    At a news conference on Wednesday, Maryse Davreux, the director of the Montérégie youth protection services, confirmed that 10 children between the ages of two and seven were brought to Montreal while two others remained in British Columbia with their father.

    "We took care of the 10 children we have right now, we do not currently have contact with the parents, we are waiting for the parents to contact us. We do not know where they are," she said.

    Quebec provincial police had issued a warrant to warn U.S. officials of the presence of 14 children they believe resided with Pontbriand.

    "He fits into the mould of a lot of people that talk about the end of the world."—Mike Kropveld, executive director of Info-Cult

    According to reports, the children in the group had recently been taken away from their parents.

    Youth protection services said the children were tired but safe after an overnight flight that landed at Montreal's Trudeau airport around 8 a.m. Wednesday.

    Davreux said social services will evaluate each child's situation and determine whether they can return to their parents' care, live with extended family members or be placed in foster homes.

    The children will undergo physical and psychological evaluations.

    No information was provided about the two adults who were with the children when they arrived in Vancouver.

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  4. A few weeks ago, Quebec provincial police signalled the disappearance of a family from Otterburn Park, Que. A father, his two young children and their grandmother were missing.

    Céline Archambault, who knew the missing man, has been waiting for her own son and his children to come back from Arizona, where they've been since 2009.

    "We don't know what kind of care they have," she said. "Young children like them are at risk of being sick."

    According to CBC's French service Radio-Canada, Pontbriand has been fined by Quebec's College of Physicians for illegally practising medicine.

    Mike Kropveld, executive director of Info-Cult — an organization that has been tracking Pontbriand's activities — said Pontbriand used to operate as healer and claimed to be able to channel spirits while he lived in Beloeil around 1995.

    Kropveld said Pontbriand is a "very charismatic individual" who had people follow him even while he worked in Quebec.

    He said the self-proclaimed healer may have about 30 followers.

    "At some point, the followers become believers," said Kropveld. "He fits into the mould of a lot of people that talk about the end of the world."

    In 2012, Pontbriand pleaded guilty to 24 counts laid by Quebec's financial regulator for illegal investments, illegal brokering and absence of prospectus.

    The Autorité des marchés financiers carried out a four year-long investigation following complaints from investors who said they lost money after buying shares belonging to Pontbriand.

    Many people came forward saying Pontbriand had sold them shares he had inflated to make more money.

    His sentencing hearing is scheduled for April 2013.

    According to Radio-Canada, a dozen people with whom he did business followed him to Arizona.


  5. Children living in cult in Arizona arrive back in Quebec

    The Canadian Press Toronto Star November 29, 2012

    MONTREAL—Youth protection officials are seeking information about a group of children who are back in Quebec after living in Arizona with the followers of a self-styled guru.

    A spokeswoman says the 10 children, who range in age from two to seven, remained in the custody of the province’s youth protection branch on Thursday after being returned earlier in the week.

    “They were tired and exhausted, but were in good health,” said Emmanuelle Choiniere, who works at a youth centre south of Montreal.

    The children’s current whereabouts is being kept confidential, but Choiniere added it’s a secure location where they have access to social workers and psychologists.

    “We’ve launched an appeal to anyone who can provide us with information, but we don’t know where their parents are,” she said.

    “There are brothers and sisters in the group, but (from) how many different families, I can’t say.”

    The children were part of a group of 12 who were intercepted by Canadian border services officials near Vancouver on Monday.

    The group, accompanied by two adults, was apparently headed into Canada from the United States.

    “They arrived at customs, but without their parents,” Choiniere added.

    She said two of the children stayed behind in British Columbia with their father and are being looked after by social services.

    The self-styled guru, Marcel Pontbriand, took refuge in a small town in Arizona in 2009 with dozens of Quebecers and some children.

    The former businessman from Beloeil, Que., was the head of a cult that allegedly separated children from their parents.

    Two of the 14 children connected with the cult are still missing.


  6. China media: Doomsday cult wants to slay 'red dragon' Communist Party

    By Reuters NBCNews.com (blog)December 14, 2012

    BEIJING -- China has launched a crackdown on a religious group it says is a cult that has called for a "decisive battle" to slay the "Big Red Dragon" of the Communist Party and spread doomsday rumors, state media said Friday.

    In recent weeks, hundreds of members of the "Almighty God" group have clashed with police, sometimes outside government buildings, in central Henan, northern Shaanxi and southwestern Gansu provinces, according to photos on popular microblogs.

    The group has "incited followers to launch a decisive battle with the 'Big Red Dragon' to make the 'Red Dragon' extinct and to establish the reign of the kingdom of the 'Almighty God,'" the provincial Shaanxi Daily said on its website.

    It added that the sect's followers have been distributing leaflets saying that the world will end in 2012.

    Sect leaders executed
    China's Communist Party brooks no challenge to its rule and is obsessed with social stability.

    It has particularly taken aim at groups it considers to be cults, which have multiplied across the country in recent years.

    Demonstrations have been put down with force and some sect leaders executed.

    "The State Bureau of Religious Affairs has already documented the group's cult nature, has outlawed it and is presently harshly cracking down," the Shaanxi Daily said.
    It did not say how many followers the sect had.

    The State Bureau of Religious Affairs did not answer repeated calls from Reuters seeking comment.

    Former President Jiang Zemin launched a campaign in 1999 to crush the Falun Gong religious group, banning it as an "evil cult."

    This happened after thousands of practitioners staged a surprise but peaceful sit-in outside the leadership compound in Beijing to demand official recognition of their movement.


  7. The Vissarion Christ: Inside Russia's End-Times Cults

    by Anna Nemtsova Newsweek December 17, 2012

    Cupping candles in their hands, wrapped in white silk and knit robes, nearly 3,000 people knelt on the snow in the middle of the Siberian woods. Tall pine trees served as the walls of their church; the stage for their chorus was carved out of ice. Fluffy snowflakes landed on their heads as they sang their prayers: “God, illuminate our souls with your light, warm up our souls.” The next moment, silence fell over the forest as a bearded, chubby man in long white robes emerged at the top of a hill. His followers call him the Vissarion Christ, or just Teacher; they pray to his portraits and celebrate his birthday, Jan. 14, as their Christmas. And they obey his every instruction, living in expectation of the apocalypse he has predicted.

    The Christ of Siberia walked carefully onto the ice stage and observed the crowd kneeling before him in the snow. Most of them live in the Abode of Dawn City or a handful of villages in Siberia’s Krasnoyarsk region; they believe their religious community is the only ark that can save them in these troubled times. Their numbers have multiplied tenfold over the past 20 years, up to about 4,500 total. They do not drink or smoke, or eat meat. Convinced that the End of Light—as they call it—is near, they intend to survive the apocalypse in Siberian Arks. “I am Jesus Christ,” Vissarion introduced himself to the newcomers, some of whom hailed from as far away as Germany, Bulgaria, and Poland. “It was prophesied that I would return to finish what I started.”

    The Vissarion Christ (who declined to be interviewed but allowed journalists to observe his ceremonies) is not the only superstar among Russia’s new religious idols. There’s also Vladimir Sobolev, the self-proclaimed reincarnation of the Chinese sage Confucius, who has led a neopagan cult of a few hundred people since 1995. They worship a deity called the Queen of Copper Mountain in the remote Ural Mountain forests—not to be confused with the Siberian goddess Anastasia, known as the Sister of Jesus Christ, a naked blonde deity documented by mystical literature througout the past decade. Over the past three years, the Anastasia legend has inspired thousands of disillusioned Russians to join a new-age exodus to the woods and countryside across the nation. Known as the “Anastasia Back-to-Land Movement,” or the “Tingling Cedar Movement,” its followers relocate to eco-villages (called “Kin’s Domains”), where they plant cedar trees to serve as antennas to connect to “space of love.” Some Anastasia followers meditate naked under the trees. “We escaped from big cities to create new social models, as the state systems have been destroyed by liars and outrageously corrupt managers,” says Dmitry Ivanov, a former army colonel who lives in one of the Kin Domains.

    Adherents of these cults and many others are flocking to the Siberian taiga, Karelian woods, or Ural and Altai mountains to leave the material world behind and find enlightenment. Whereas a decade ago, Russians escaped the post-­Soviet crisis by joining foreign religions—such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or the Church of Scientology—domestic sects have been on the ascendant for the past decade. (The Russian Orthodox Church is growing, too—it has built more than 22,000 new monasteries since the collapse of the Soviet Union.)

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  8. Many of the followers say they are exhausted by decades of corruption, terrorism, ethnic violence, and fading morality in Russia. This year, the feeling seems to have intensified as the date of the supposed Mayan apocalypse—Dec. 21, 2102—approached. Russian TV channels have taken to running shows about world disasters, including one popular one called “Apocalypse: Unfriendly Universe.” (Earlier this month, Prime Minsiter Dmitry Medvedev felt the need to reiterate that the Doomsday was not upon Russia. “I do not believe in the end of the world,” he said, “at least, not this year.”)

    Analysts see the rise in cult membership to be indicative of a larger vacuum of values in mainstream Russia. “The Orthodox Church has no moral authority,” says Maria Lipman of the Carnegie Center for International Peace in Moscow. “The country’s president and prime minister often contradict each other. Russians feel lost searching for any definite truth.” Pro-Kremlin analyst Sergei Markov adds, “Feeling spiritually hungry, people create their own tiny islands of survival. The government is aware of the issue, but has no concrete plan of persecuting the cult leaders.”

    Nevertheless, the Russian government has grown increasingly worried about the sects and the Russian Orthodox Church has gone so far as to set up a department to monitor the cults’ influence. The department’s director, Alexander Dvorkin, estimates that 4,000 distinct religious movements and cults—involving up to 800,000 people—exist in Russia today. Authorities have gotten more aggressive about cracking down on the groups—last February, prosecutors banned a media campaign by a group called Power of Changes that advocated joining splinter religious groups in Rostov-on-Don, Perm, and Novosibirsk. And last December, a court in Birobidzhan banned a group called the Ark of Rescue, which focused on exorcising demons.

    But Siberia is big and Moscow, distant, escapists say. “We go deep into the taiga and worship bears—nobody can forbid us from doing that,” says Grigory, the leader of an ethnic music band in Blagoveshesk.

    The darker side of cults is not unknown in Russia. Seventy members—including 19 children—of the Land of Allah sect used to live in an eight-level “underground anthill” in the city of Kazan, awaiting the apocalypse. The children lived without seeing daylight and were allowed to have sex as teenagers until the group’s prophet leader, the 83-year-old Faizrakhman Satarov, was detained last August. He now faces up to six months in prison for “arbitrariness” and police are investigating the group’s activity. Last year the leader of the Novosibirsk branch of the large, countrywide Ashram Shambala sect—a man named Konstantin Rudnev, who claimed to be an alien god from the star Sirius—was convicted of sexually abusing 15 followers. And the followers of the Primorye Partisans movement, a violent back-to-the-woods group, have been accused of killing two police officers.

    “There is no future for us in the cities besides prison,” said Sergei, a Primorye Partisans follower who lives in the village of Kirovsky, a downtrodden place deep in the forests outside of Vladivostok full of crumbling buildings and no jobs, though it boasted new villas for police officers.

    The followers of the Vissarion Christ cite different motivations for quitting their former lives and moving to join his sect in Siberia. Twenty-four-year-old Tamara, formerly a successful lawyer at a Moscow advertising company, liked the fact that Vissarion—who likes to paint—inspired dozens of other painters and sculptors. She wanted to join Vissarion’s community to “live among creative, happy people.” Others felt Vissarion’s philosophy just made sense.

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  9. One of the Messiah’s first followers and his current chief priest, Sergei Chevalkov—a former colonel of the Strategic Rocket Forces, the branch of the Russian military that operates nuclear missiles—felt the teaching “embraced and mixed up bits of everything people liked from the Bible, Carlos Castenada, Osho or Krishna’s teachings.” The colonel joined up with Vissarion—who used to be a skinny traffic cop from Siberia named Sergei Torop—not long after Torop walked into Red Square on a summer morning in 1991 and declared himself to be the Christ. It was a chaotic time in Moscow, just days after a hardline coup, and few onlookers were surprised. After all, there were at least 12 other self-proclaimed Christs in the capital at the time, as well as hundreds of new-age seers healing the masses on TV, as well as tons of esoteric and tantric sex gurus.

    After Chevalkov heard Vissarion preach, he sold his Moscow apartment, quit his job and followed the Teacher to the Siberia wilderness, along with hundreds of other Moscow and St. Petersburg officers, artists, and academics. More believers followed. One of them, Vasiliy Romanyuk, believed it was “time to settle in the Ark.” In a few years, he said, the world will be under water—or most of it, anyway. Siberia will survive, and enjoy a pleasantly tropical climate. With money made of the sale of their apartments in Russian cities, the Ark builders rent 250 hectares of land in the woods surrounding Sukhoi Mountain, about 700 kilometers from the regional capital of Krasnoyarsk, and erect ­beautifully designed, modest log houses, in which to await the end of the world.

    Discipline is strict in the community’s capital, the Abode of Dawn City. Every morning, Chevalkov rounds up the men on the city’s center plaza. They pray in a circle, holding hands, then the supervisors distribute the eight-hour jobs: clearing snow, cutting wood, constructing new houses. Vissarion’s 11 volumes of testimony speak against the use of makeup, cash, shampoo, animal food, weapons, and cars, which are all banned in the city. All money brought in from the outside world goes into a common budget. Every month, the community gives each member a modest supply of food; otherwise, people survive on what they grow in their gardens.

    Vissarion says that women should serve men, just as men serve God. Mothers look after the children, and the community’s birth rate is far higher than in the rest of Russia. A few years ago, in order to balance the disproportionate number of women to men, Vissarion ordered the wives to forget that their husbands only belong to them, and to let other women share the happiness of their family lives. The followers refer to the polygamist experiments as Triangles, and men must wait for the wives’ permission before bringing a new wife home. Vissarion’s authorities say the Triangles are attempts to boost the birth rate even further. “It is much easier to build the Ark with children brought up in the community,” said Vissarion’s right-hand apostle Vadim Redkin, who has written a detailed account of Vissarion’s life. (Vissarion’s own first marriage did not survive the Triangle experiment, and his first wife left him after he married a 19-year-old, who has served as a nude model for some of his paintings.)

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  10. The community—or Common Family, as they call themselves—measures time by the years of Vissarion’s life. Last year, the Messiah turned 50, and to highlight the inevitability of the approaching apocalypse, he gave an especially significant annual sermon. “There is no free time in the School of Life, where you’ve come to study,” Vissarion told his disciples. He urged them to “mobilize all life potentials on the brink of a precipice” and work to purify their beliefs before the end comes (unlike state television, Vissarion does not talk of any particular date for doomsday).

    Vissarion’s paradise is not always so utopian, however. A young group of artists and musicians—including some of his former followers—have banded together to form a group called Shamans of the Last Testament, and they have vocally criticized Vissarion and his priests. They say that, unlike his followers, who live in relative poverty, Vissarion lives in luxury in a heated Western-style cottage with wooden verandas and warm towels, and that he goes on lavish trips to visit spiritual friends in India (including the late sitar guru, Shri Shri Ravi Shankar). And they say that since Vissarion’s elite group of priests make sure to keep the details of Vissarion’s personal income private, no one has been able to investigate the source of the Teacher’s cushy living standards.

    Still, the Christ of Siberia does not come across as a maniacal overlord like a David Koresh or a Jim Jones. He spends most of his time preaching on Skype or playing with the youngest of his seven children. But critics worry about what Vissarion (known to authorities by his birth name, Torop) could do if he feels the end is approaching. Dvorkin, of the Orthodox Church, fears a grim end awaits the Siberian apostles: “If tomorrow Torop tells his followers to go and kill themselves, they will.”

    Reporting for this article was made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.


  11. China rounds up members of doomsday cult

    By Jamil Anderlini in Beijing Financial Times December 17 2012

    Police across China are rounding up members of a quasi-Christian doomsday cult who have been preaching the end of the world and urging people to launch a “decisive battle” to slay the “big red dragon” of the Communist party.

    Scores and perhaps hundreds of members of an outlawed cult known as the “Church of Almighty God” have been detained throughout the country in recent days as Beijing tries to stop believers taking drastic action on what they believe to be the eve of the apocalypse, according to relatives of cult members and state media reports.

    The sect, which preaches the second coming of a female Jesus, appears to have adapted an ancient Mayan prophecy that some people believe predicts the end of the world on December 21 2012 and has been popularised by Hollywood movies such as “2012”.

    “They are telling everyone that on Friday the sun will rise in the west and then disappear for three days and then there will be 72 days of terrible natural disasters starting from January 1 2013,” one 24-year-old former cult member whose 50-year-old mother is still an adherent told the Financial Times. He asked not to be named because he feared retribution from the cult, which is also known as “Lightning from the East”.

    “They’ve also told all members to withdraw their money from the bank in preparation for the end of the world,” he said.

    The Communist party is particularly sensitive to the rise of any religious or quasi-religious organisation thanks to a long history in China of uprisings based on mystical beliefs.

    In the mid-19th century the quasi-Christian Taiping Rebellion, led by a man who believed himself to be the younger brother of Jesus, laid waste to half of China and almost brought down the Qing Empire.

    At the dawn of the 20th century the members of the anti-Christian “Boxer Uprising”, who believed their faith made them impervious to bullets, laid siege to the Foreign Legation embassy quarter in Beijing and also nearly toppled the tottering empire.

    More recently, the party launched a savage campaign against the Falun Gong spiritual movement in 1999 after adherents surrounded the compound that houses the nation’s top leaders and performed their signature breathing exercises.

    Since then thousands of Falun Gong members have been jailed and many more subjected to brutal “re-education”.

    The Church of Almighty God was founded in central China’s Henan Province in the early 1990s by a man called Zhao Weishan and has now spread throughout the country.

    Because it operates as a secret underground organisation it is impossible to estimate the full size of the church but one follower, who asked not to be named, told the FT that there were “at least several million” adherents across the country.

    The government has long classified the group as an “illegal cult” and periodically cracked down on it for forcing members to hand over cash and assets, but the scale and severity of the latest campaign is unprecedented.

    “There are many examples of similar fringe religious movements in China and this one has been around for a long time but the difference now appears to be its move into politics and its calls to destroy the Communist party,” said Tao Yong, a Canada-based historian and author who is an expert on the Taiping Rebellion. “In the past I haven’t seen this particular group use this language of slaying the red dragon and it is this sort of thing that hits a nerve for the Chinese government.”

    Mr Tao said the leader of the sect now lives in the US.

    Additional reporting by Gu Yu


  12. China cracking down on doomsday group

    More than 100 members of Almighty God have been arrested. The group warns that the world will end Dec. 21 and urges members to wage war on the Communist Party.

    By John Hannon, Los Angeles Times December 17, 2012

    BEIJING — For members of a doomsday cult in China, the end may indeed be near.

    Authorities have in recent weeks arrested more than 100 members of a fringe Christian-inspired group known as Almighty God that is prophesying the world will end Dec. 21, according to state media.

    Members of the group had been distributing apocalyptic literature and sending text messages throughout China when the government began detaining them this month. On Dec. 8, police arrested 34 members in Fujian province, which lies on China's southeastern coast. On Thursday, they arrested 37 members, including seven leaders in Xining, a city in the west-central province of Qinghai. There have also been arrests in Sichuan and Hubei provinces and elsewhere.

    "Dec. 21 is approaching, and on that day half of the world's good people will die, and all evil people will die out — only if you join the Almighty God movement can you avoid death and be saved," warned a pamphlet confiscated by police in Shaoxing city, in the eastern province of Zhejiang, and quoted by state media. A text message predicted, "Great tsunamis and earthquakes are about to happen around the world."

    Perhaps more threatening to the Chinese government, the group also urged followers to wage war on what it called the "big red dragon," referring to the Communist Party.

    In Henan province, authorities said that the suspect held in a slashing attack that injured 23 schoolchildren Friday had acted "under the influence of doomsday beliefs." It was unclear, however, whether the authorities were linking the man to the same group.

    The suspect, Min Yongjun, had believed a local woman who had been telling villagers that “the end of the world is coming and the Earth will explode,” Ouyang Mingxing, a deputy director of Guangshan’s public security bureau, told the state-run Global Times. The official added that police found more than 70 pamphlets in the woman's home.

    Unmonitored religious sects are regarded as a serious threat by the Chinese Communist Party. Falun Gong, an indigenous religious group that began agitating against the government in the 1990s, likewise calls for the party's downfall.

    The government's wariness stems in part from the powerful influence such groups can exert in a land largely devoid of organized religion but riddled with a lack of trust, said sociologist Zhou Xiaozheng of People's University.

    "Because China has no established religion, people looking for a way to set their minds at ease may turn to cults," said Zhou. "People don't believe in what the government says, so they may wind up believing in wild rumors."

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  13. Major rebellions against Chinese authority have sprung from Christian sects in the past. The Taiping Rebellion in the 19th century, started by a man who claimed to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ, led to civil war and contributed to the fall of the last Chinese dynasty.

    Several Protestant groups currently active in China have published accounts of their dealings with the Almighty God movement, also known as Eastern Lightning. According to the Christian Research Journal, a man named Zhao Weishan founded the movement in Heilongjiang province in 1989. Zhao later moved to Henan province, where he began to teach that Jesus Christ had returned to Earth in the form of a Henan woman named Deng. Zhao reportedly immigrated to America in 2000.

    The Almighty God movement has given other religious groups and the government cause for concern. Some Protestant groups say the sect — which one group, China for Jesus, estimates is 1 million strong — has engaged in kidnapping, coercion and blackmail directed against other churches.

    Doomsday theories have proved popular in China in recent years. The film "2012," which describes a set of catastrophic geological events, set box-office records when it was released in China in 2009. Columbia Pictures released a 3-D version for the Chinese audience late this year.

    Chinese authorities are trying to keep people from taking the latest apocalyptic scenario too seriously, warning that the rumors are causing "unrest and panic buying … undermining social order and cheating people out of their money," as the official China Daily newspaper put it.

    Stores in some areas were reported to be out of candles because of predictions of three days of darkness.

    Scientists have been urged to speak out in public about the fallacy of the predictions.

    "Dec. 21 is the winter solstice and it's just the change of seasons.... The day is short and the night is long, but it's a normal, natural event," Yang Guang, an astronomer at the National Astronomical Observatories satellite observation station in Changchun, was quoted as telling the China Daily.

    At least one company in the southern city of Kunming was reported by state media to be offering its employees a day off work and survival kits — partly as a joke.

    Fears of a fast-approaching day of reckoning have also provided inspiration to Chinese inventors. A farmer in Hebei province and a businessman in Yiwu, a town south of Shanghai, separately developed large survival pods for use in case of calamity. The Yiwu entrepreneur said customers had ordered 28 pods for delivery before Dec. 21.

    Hannon is an intern in The Times' Beijing bureau. Times staff writer Barbara Demick contributed to this report.


  14. China arrests 500 followers of religious cult over Mayan apocalypse rumours

    Quasi-Christian religious group the Church of the Almighty God accused of spreading rumours that world will end on Friday

    Jonathan Kaiman in Beijing The Guardian December 19, 2012

    Chinese authorities have detained 500 people belonging to a quasi-Christian religious group called the Church of the Almighty God for spreading rumours that the world will end on Friday, according to the country's official news agency Xinhua. Four hundred of the arrests, which have taken place over recent weeks, were in the north-western Qinghai province and the remainder in eight other provinces.

    "The Qinghai police bureau stated that the police had stormed numerous centres belonging to the Almighty God cult, arresting more than 400 members and confiscating over 5,000 items including banners, DVDs, slogans, books, computers, speakers, and cell phones,"

    Xinhua reported, adding that the group has "advanced anti-detection capabilities".

    The report was not specific about which government department had orchestrated the arrests. "It's the government – which part of the government, nobody knows," said Zhou Xiaozheng, a sociology professor at Renmin University in Beijing. "The government controls the media, so nobody's allowed to report on it."

    Human rights groups say Chinese authorities maintain a vast network of shadowy, extrajudicial agencies that crack down on dissidents and unauthorised religious groups. The most notorious of them, the 610 Office, was established in 1999 to control the spiritual group Falun Gong. The group was outlawed that year after thousands of followers staged a silent protest outside of the Communist party's central leadership compound in Beijing.

    "Though Falun Gong remains the primary focus, its targets now include house church Christians, Buddhists and other religious or spiritual groups," said a 2011 report on the office by the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation thinktank. "Today, based on extrapolating from district-level numbers on local government websites, we estimate it retains at least 15,000 officers."

    China's state bureau of religious affairs declined to comment.

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  15. Theories that the world will end on 21 December, the last day on the cyclical Mayan calendar, have gained incredible momentum in China. Much of the furor seems inspired by the Hollywood film 2012, a box office hit in China, which used the so-called "Mayan apocalypse" as its central premise.

    Central propaganda authorities have instructed Chinese media outlets to dampen their coverage of the rumoured cataclysm. "Strengthen positive guidance and forcefully guard against the creation and spread of rumours, as well as working up panicked feelings," said a leaked directive posted to the internet by the Berkeley, California-based China Digital Times. The terms Almighty God and Eastern Lightning, another name for the group, have been blocked on the country's most popular microblog Sina Weibo.

    The Almighty God group was founded in the 1990s by self-proclaimed grand priest" Zhao Weishan in central Henan Province. Among the group's core tenets are the belief that a female Jesus Christ will save adherents from the end of the world and that it must fight a decisive battle against the "Big Red Dragon", its word for the Chinese Communist party. Zhao left China for the United States 12 years ago seeking religious asylum.

    "They're saying the bible is outdated," said a leader of an unofficial church in Beijing who requested anonymity. "They make sure their interpretations are very adapted to Chinese culture, so it's easy for Chinese people to understand what they're preaching."

    Hu Xingdou, an economist at Beijing Institute of Technology and well-known commentator on China's social issues, said quasi-religious groups are proliferating outside of the country's major cities.

    "In general you're beginning to see a moral vacuum in Chinese society," he said. "Corruption is terrible, the wealth gap is terrible, everyone just wants to make more money. All of these bad things create the ideal circumstances for the growth of a cult."

    Additional research by Chuan Xu


  16. China cult targeted as doomsday nears

    By Jamil Anderlini in Handan Financial Times December 20, 2012

    Shi Xinwang’s jaw clenched with emotion as he described how he recently discovered his wife of six years was a secret member of Eastern Lightning, one of China’s largest doomsday cults.

    In his parents’ freezing bedroom cellar in their impoverished village in central China, the young man held up a video on his mobile phone of their five-year-old daughter in happier times, dancing and performing for his wife, Xiaowei.
    “At first I thought she was just a normal Christian but from the internet I soon learnt that Eastern Lightning is a dangerous cult,” Mr Shi says. “In recent days she has told me to withdraw all our money and prepare to beg for Almighty God’s mercy because the world will end on Friday.”

    In desperation he has secretly informed on her to the Chinese authorities. A nationwide crackdown has so far led to the arrest of about 1,000 followers of the quasi-Christian group, which also calls itself the Church of Almighty God.

    Eastern Lightning, one of China’s most aggressive millenarian sects, believes that Christ has been reincarnated as a woman in central China and is on a mission to lead the faithful in a decisive battle to slay the “great red dragon” of the Communist party.

    Current and former Eastern Lightning adherents told the Financial Times this week that the group had adopted a theory popularised in the Hollywood film2012, which says an ancient Mayan calendar has predicted that doomsday will fall on Friday, December 21 2012.

    Believers expect three days of darkness followed by 72 days of natural disasters, starting on January 1, that will devastate the earth and wipe out all non-believers, whom they refer to among themselves as “snakes” and “demons”.

    Adherents direct recruitment efforts at disenfranchised groups in China’s poorest rural areas, including underground Christian “house churches” deemed illegal by the government, and state-sanctioned Catholic and Protestant congregations.

    “The pastor gave a sermon on Sunday to warn us all about this evil cult,” says Han Xiuting, 81, an administrator at the officially sanctioned North Protestant Church of Handan, the closest city to the area where Mr Shi’s wife has been trying to harvest souls in preparation for Friday’s Armageddon. “After the service we gathered together and burnt some of [Eastern Lightning’s] pamphlets.”

    In response to questions from the FT, Eastern Lightning denied it was a cult and said it was being persecuted by the Communist party. Eastern Lightning claims to have millions of followers throughout the country. The government and other Christian groups put their numbers at close to 1m.

    Mr Shi estimated that about 10 per cent of the 2,000 people living in his village, in a poor and desolate region of Hebei province, are either members of the Eastern Lightning cult or are in the process of being converted. It was hard to know, he said, because followers know each other only by codenames such as “Strong as Steel” and “Seeker”.

    “China’s modernisation has been so fast and the government has ignored people’s need for spiritual fulfilment,” said Mr Shi. He added that his wife was happy and content when they moved to Beijing in 2006 in search of a better life and only rejoined the cult when she returned to their home village to look after her ageing father, who is also an Eastern Lightning devotee.

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  17. To aid in proselytising, Eastern Lightning’s songs are set to the tune of Communist anthems, such as “The Internationale”, and the group allegedly provides small loans or even sexual favours as inducements to prospective members. It is also accused of kidnapping and torture, according to government officials in charge of infiltrating its ranks.

    “This religion is extremely hard to smash because they often only have single points of contact between separate levels,” one 33-year-old Eastern Lightning member of a cadre in the eastern city of Jinan, who is also a spy for the Chinese police, told the FT. “It’s actually very similar to the Communist party during its underground revolutionary phase [prior to 1949].

    “It’s also a bit like pyramid selling,” he added. “The more people you recruit and more money you give to the church, the higher your status will be in heaven. If you don’t donate you don’t have a chance for promotion in this life either.”

    In recent weeks there have been sporadic protests by groups of believers in remote parts of the country, calling on people to offer themselves up for salvation and taunting the ruling Communist party, which they say is about to be wiped out by God’s wrath.

    The party is especially sensitive because of China’s long history of millenarianism going back to the advent of the Buddhist White Lotus sect in the 13th century. The Taiping rebellion – a quasi-Christian uprising in the mid-19th century led by a man who believed he was the younger brother of Jesus – plunged most of southern China into a civil war that remains the bloodiest in history, with as many as 30m killed.

    More recently, Beijing launched a vicious crackdown in 1999 on the Falun Gong spiritual movement that has seen thousands of adherents tortured and imprisoned.
    Eastern Lightning was founded in the early 1990s in central China’s overpopulated and dirt-poor Henan province, by Zhao Weishan, a former member of the radical Christian “shouters” sect from northeast China. He claimed to have discovered the living female Christ and told followers to throw away the Bible.

    Mr Zhao fled to the US more than a decade ago, where he was given asylum on the grounds of religious persecution.

    The government has launched numerous attacks on the group since it was designated an evil cult in 2000 but, as with many apocalyptic movements, persecution is seen as further evidence that the end is at hand.

    “They believe that any hardship they experience is a test from God, and so the more we crack down on them the more they believe in this cult,” said an official from the Communist party’s shadowy and extrajudicial “610 office”, which is named after the date it was established (June 10 1999) to lead the attack on Falun Gong. The office is now in charge of all “anti-cult” operations in China.

    Although they also view Eastern Lightning as a dangerous cult, some Christian activist groups outside China are concerned that the latest arrests of adherents could mark the beginning of a wider campaign against underground Christian churches. Others argue that Beijing’s sweeping restrictions on all forms of religion actually encourage the emergence of more radical groups.

    Mr Shi said he planned to offer his wife an ultimatum on Saturday, once her doomsday prediction was proved wrong. “If nothing happens on December 21 then I will tell her she has to quit. And if she won’t, I’ll move back to Beijing with our daughter. She will go to jail.”

    Additional reporting by Gu Yu


  18. NOTE: The following news article does not specifically refer to children being abused in this religious group, but the children in this community are definitely exposed to dangerous dogma. If the deceased woman received no medical care, but was simply prayed for, then that indicates the children are in danger of the same medical neglect.


    Inquiry into doctor who buried mother on cult land

    by Eamonn Duff, Sun-Herald senior investigative writer
    Sydney Morning Herald February 24, 2013

    Could Irene Maendel have been saved? A special investigation by Eamonn Duff.

    A doctor who lives with a religious cult in northern NSW is to be examined by health authorities after he failed to report that his mother had died and was buried on the sect's private grounds while she was on holiday from the US.

    In March 2010, Irene Maendel collapsed of a suspected stroke while staying with her son Chris Maendel, who is a senior figure and the resident doctor of a restrictive Christian-based religious order called the Bruderhof.

    The Amish-style community of 170 people live on a compound called Danthonia, 25 kilometres east of Inverell. Instead of contacting the outside world for help or transporting Irene to a hospital for appropriate treatment, she was kept within the community, prayed for around the clock and given repeated doses of morphine. She died six days later. Dr Maendel then completed her death certificate and she was buried on the compound. Neither the police nor the coroner were informed.

    When conflicting and alarming reports filtered back to Irene's US-based family, it contacted the NSW Police which launched an investigation. At a subsequent inquest into her death in October 2011, coroner Michael Holmes refused to be drawn on evidence that suggested Irene's demise had been turned into a ''church event''.

    He labelled it ''unfortunate'' that her death was not reported and that, by treating an immediate family member and signing her death certificate, Dr Maendel had breached NSW Medical Board policy.

    An ''inter-cranial haemorrhage with hypertension'' was listed as the official cause of death.

    But Irene's fourth son, James, and his wife, Nicole, who live in Michigan, were concerned that the religious group's collective ''connection with Jesus'' had been placed before Irene's ''basic right to the best treatment a modern medical system can offer''.

    A Fairfax Media investigation can now reveal that, after a separate probe, the Health Care Complaints Commission is bringing Dr Maendel before a medical tribunal on March 4, alleging he is guilty of unsatisfactory professional conduct and/or professional misconduct under the Health Practitioner Regulation Law.

    Irene's daughter-in-law Nicole said she hoped to receive ''honest answers'' about the unexpected death of a ''wonderful woman my husband called mother … and our three sons called grandmother''.

    In her submission tendered as evidence in the coronial inquest, Nicole noted that Irene's ''situation'' had occurred shortly before Palm Sunday and that the tenor and language used by some present drew direct comparisons to both Jesus and his death on the cross.

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  19. ''Rather than Irene being taken in for emergency care and an appropriate, dignified and definable diagnosis, she was uplifted in an almost sacrificial way towards the cause of the community as they approached Easter,'' she said.

    Irene and her husband, Jake, were US citizens who raised 10 children in a Bruderhof community. They were eight months into a year-long stay with Dr Maendel who, since arriving in Australia in 2005, had served as Danthonia's licensed medical practitioner. He also serves non-Bruderhof residents from Inverell and Glen Innes in an outpatients clinic.

    But on March 1, 2010, he was confronted with a crisis when his mother collapsed in a toilet cubicle.

    A series of documents, submitted as part of the evidence at the later coronial inquest, raised questions about whether Irene was denied treatment that could have saved her life.

    In a report of death tendered to the State Coroner in October 2011, Detective Senior Constable Dave Ryan confirmed no ambulance or help from the outside world was sought.

    He also said that, when Nicole asked Dr Maendel why she had not yet received a CT scan and expert diagnosis, he allegedly replied that Danthonia was located ''deep in the Australian outback'' and the journey to a ''small country hospital'' would be hours ''over rough terrain''. According to the statement, Dr Maendel reasoned that she would be better cared for by the brothers and sisters, ''surrounded by the love of Jesus''.

    When Irene's US-based family looked up Danthonia on the internet, it was alarmed to discover that the compound was, in fact, less than 30 minutes' drive to Inverell Hospital and just off the Gwydir Highway, a two-lane sealed road.

    The family was further shocked when, after Irene's death, a handwritten letter arrived providing a detailed, first-hand account of her final six days at Danthonia.

    The correspondence was sent by a young Bruderhof sister called Dorrie Rhodes, who cared for Irene during her final week.

    ''It is just so hard to put into words what we were allowed to experience together. But I feel I must try … there was such a holy atmosphere surrounding Irene … I am sure there were angels standing unseen around her bed at all times,'' Ms Rhodes wrote. She described Irene as awake, alert and full of life in the days before her death. Senior Detective Ryan noted in his report to the coroner that it was ''unclear if the deceased was ever informed of her condition or consulted as to her treatment''.

    Ms Rhodes wrote: ''I was so touched how several times when I entered the room or came over to her, she waved at me and smiled … it was also very hard to witness her puzzlement over why she was in bed and what had happened. She asked several times, 'What happened to me?' or, 'Am I sick?' She wanted to get up to take a shower. I didn't know what to say to her … we were at a loss at what to tell Irene about her situation. It was just so new for all of us.''

    The letter went onto state that, after Irene's death, members kept watch over her body for four days. ''To see her lying there was so unbelievable … I feel this experience was a gift from God to Danthonia to melt our hearts of stone.''

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  20. Senior Detective Ryan said it would appear ''to a non-medical person'' that the correct diagnostic procedure for brain bleeds was either CT or MRI scans, adding none of these methods were used.

    After seeking legal advice, Dr Maendel declined to be interviewed by police. But based on Senior Detective Ryan's investigation and evidence, an exhumation order was issued with toxicology results confirming the presence of morphine in Irene's body.

    When the coronial inquest was set down for four days in 2010, it seemed likely a spotlight would shine on the Bruderhof, its policies and practices which, in Irene's medical case, at least, seemed at loggerheads with those adopted in the outside world.

    But Mr Holmes steered clear of the religious aspects surrounding the case. He also declined to make any recommendations due to the HCCC investigation that was running parallel to the hearing.

    The court, however, did receive advice from medical experts, including Margaret Ellen Gibbons, who believed Irene would have had a 50 to 60 per cent chance of a full recovery had she seen a specialist neurologist.

    Irene's son James said: ''My mom was a vibrant 70-year-old who loved life. I believe she would have wanted everything possible done to save her life, including being airlifted to one of several cutting-edge teaching hospitals within an hour from her location.''

    Her Michigan-based family members said they would make no comment until after they had given evidence to the HCCC. Dr Maendel could not be reached. His lawyer said he had moved to New York but would return for the tribunal.


    March 2010 US tourist Irene Maendel collapses of a suspected stroke while visiting her son who lives with the Bruderhof in northern NSW. The son, Christopher Maendel, the commune’s doctor, decides not to take Irene to nearby Inverell, where specialist hospital care was available. Six days later she dies.

    June 2010 NSW Police investigate after a complaint is received from family members in the US.

    July 2010 The Health Care Complaints Commission receives a complaint about Dr Maendel, alleging breaches of professional conduct.

    May 2011 An exhumation and post-mortem show morphine was administered to Ms Maendel.

    March 4, 2013 An HCCC tribunal will begin in Sydney, focusing on Dr Maendel’s alleged misconduct.


    The Bruderhof formed in Germany after World War I, when Dr Eberhard Arnold created a community in which love and justice replaced violence, isolation and greed. Beyond a few minor possessions, members have no assets. They receive no pay. Income is pooled for the care of all.

    In 1937, Nazi persecution forced the Bruderhof to flee Germany and establish a new base in rural England. Today they have communities in the US, Britain, Germany, South America
    and Australia.

    Founded in 1999, Danthonia is a Bruderhof community near the NSW town of Inverell. The commune now has 170 members who survive through livestock rearing, sign-making and gardening


  21. Nurses investigated in cult death inquiry

    by EAMONN DUFF, Sydney Morning Herald March 03, 2013

    Health authorities have widened the inquiry into the unreported death of a US holidaymaker on farmland belonging to a religious cult, launching an investigation into two nurses who were allegedly present.

    Irene Maendel collapsed of a suspected stroke in March 2010 while visiting her son Chris Maendel, who is a senior figure and resident doctor with the Bruderhof, a strict Christian movement whose members live on a property named Danthonia, near Inverell, in northern NSW.

    To the disbelief of some of Ms Maendel's friends and relatives, Dr Maendel and his father Jake decided not to send her to a nearby hospital for specialist care. She was instead kept at Danthonia and given repeated doses of morphine while the 170-strong flock took turns to pray at her bedside.

    She died six days later and was buried on the property, without the police or coroner being informed.

    A Fairfax investigation last week revealed that Dr Maendel's involvement is to be examined by the Health Care Complaints Commission disciplinary tribunal, which starts in Sydney's District Court on Monday. It can also be confirmed that two registered nurses and Bruderhof members, Andrew Blough and Anthony Fischli, will appear before a separate Nursing and Midwifery Professional Standards Committee hearing in May.

    The news comes as the Dutch-based granddaughter of the Bruderhof founder, Dr Eberhard Arnold, lashed out at the movement, labelling it ''a cult''. Dr Arnold founded the Bruderhof in Germany in 1920, aiming to build a community in which love and justice overcame isolation and greed. ''I am so angry and sad,'' said his granddaughter, Elizabeth Bohlken. ''It has become the exact opposite of what my grandfather set out to achieve.'' She described the death of Irene Maendel, her lifelong friend, as horrific, saying: ''The story needs to be told, and judged by human standards and laws today.''

    In June 2010, the NSW Police launched an investigation into the death after complaints from Ms Maendel's US-based son, James, and his wife, Nicole. The detective in charge found she was full of life in the days before her death, and at one stage she expressed puzzlement over why she was confined to bed.

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  22. At an inquest in October 2011, the Coroner, Michael Holmes, listed an ''inter-cranial haemorrhage with hypertension'' as the cause of death. He refused to address information, submitted as part of the brief of evidence, that questioned whether Ms Maendel's death had been turned into a ''church event''.

    Mr Holmes declined to make any recommendations, due to the HCCC inquiry running parallel to the hearing. That investigation has since found Dr Maendel breached NSW Medical Board guidelines when he treated an immediate family member and signed her death certificate.

    At the hearing, he will be asked why he did not take his mother to a specialist neurologist or arrange for a potentially life-saving MRI scan.

    In the week since Fairfax broke the story, feedback has poured in from Ms Maendel's former friends, ex-members of the Bruderhof and from another son, who argues her last days were ''the culmination of a full and rich life that ended in the way she would have chosen''.

    Len Maendel is one of her 10 children and said he supported the ''decisions made'', adding: ''I am personally grateful to know my mother could live out her last days with my father at her side and surrounded by people she loved.''

    Ms Bohlken described the early Bruderhof days as a ''joyful and happy''. But between 1950 and 1960, she said, a US commune became the power centre of the movement. ''The fundamentalist attitude to matters of faith in the American churches, where new members were recruited, as well as their financial fortunes, turned the Bruderhof into a sect - a cult. Over the years this only got stronger,'' she said.

    Members take lifetime vows of obedience and poverty, and the US-based group controls the finances and operations of more than 20 Bruderhof communes worldwide.

    However, a Danthonia senior pastor, Randall Gauger, maintained the Bruderhof had no policies that override decisions made by patients and families on end-of-life care, and claimed it was ''false and misleading'' to call the Bruderhof a cult.


  23. Thank you for reporting this important story.

  24. Deadly attack raises concern about growth of 'evil cults' in China

    by JULIE MAKINEN, Los Angeles Times REPORTING FROM BEIJING June 7, 2014

    Wu Shuoyan was waiting for her husband and their 7-year-old son at a McDonald's when she posted a note on a social media site: "I met some crazy people."
    Twenty minutes later, she lay dead on the floor, beaten to death with a metal pole. Authorities say the perpetrators were six members of a religious cult, including a middle-aged man, his two grown daughters and his 12-year-old son, who became angry when Wu refused to give them her phone number.

    A bystander recorded the horror with a cellphone camera; in the footage, uploaded to the Internet, Wu's main attacker can be heard bellowing, "Go die! Evil spirit!" as he pummels her. A female accomplice screeches at onlookers: "Whoever interferes will die!"

    Religious belief is on the upswing across China, with underground and fringe groups as well as mainstream, state-approved congregations attracting many new members. The savage, apparently random attack last week in the eastern city of Zhaoyuan has prompted calls in the state-run press for a crackdown on "evil" religious organizations. It also has sparked questions about whether the government's longtime controls on belief groups of all sorts may inadvertently be hampering efforts to combat possibly violent sects.

    "That cults … have so easily established themselves and expanded in rural China is a loud slap in the face for the education authorities and their proud indices of success," the China Daily newspaper said in an editorial.

    In a jailhouse interview broadcast on state-run CCTV, the suspected ringleader of the McDonald's slaying, Zhang Lidong, said he had been a member of the Almighty God organization for seven years; the group has been banned by Chinese authorities since 1995.

    Zhang calmly admitted to killing Wu, calling her a "monster" and a "demon," and expressed no remorse. "We are not afraid of the law. We have faith in God," said Zhang, who was identified as an unemployed former businessman. Asked how he felt, he said, "Great."

    The Almighty God group began about a quarter of a century ago in northeastern Heilongjiang province; the group is sometimes also called Eastern Lightning and has connections to earlier sects, including a 1980s movement called the Shouters.

    Founder Zhao Weishan preached that Jesus had come back to Earth in the form of a local woman named Yang Xiangbin, also known as Lightning Deng. Both Yang and Zhao subsequently immigrated to the United States. The sect claims to have up to 5 million members worldwide and opposes China's Communist Party, calling it the "Great Red Dragon."

    China cracked down in late 2012, when members prophesied that the world would end Dec. 21. Nearly 1,000 Almighty God adherents were detained for handing out leaflets about the apocalypse and "spreading rumors." It was one of the biggest operations against a religious group since the 1999 ban on Falun Gong, which draws its beliefs from Eastern traditions including qigong and Buddhism.

    The communist government officially permits Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, and Catholic and Protestant Christianity; the religious groups are supposed to be affiliated with a government-approved umbrella organization. Tens of millions of Chinese, however, have joined "house churches" and other unsanctioned groups.

    continued below

  25. Such unregistered organizations make Chinese authorities nervous, in part because large uprisings have sprung from Christian sects in the past. The Taiping Rebellion of the 1800s, started by a man who said he was Jesus Christ's brother, led to civil war and contributed to the downfall of China's last dynasty.

    Some observers sense a newly intensified effort to counter unpermitted belief groups. Red-and-white banners with messages such as "Believe in science, create culture, make great efforts against evil cults," can be seen in parks and many other public spaces across the country.

    "I think it's more visible. After the Falun Gong [crackdown], there was a wave of this kind of propaganda," said Nanlai Cao, associate professor in religious studies at the People's University in Beijing. "The past five years, I don't think it was very visible, but now I think it's a big issue, and has become a top priority for government officials."

    In the wake of the McDonald's slaying, state-run media have linked the Almighty God organization to riots in Henan in 1998, the killing of an elementary school student in 2010 and a mass stabbing of schoolchildren in 2012.

    "Maybe in the past, they choose not to report it, but in the current context there may be more coverage," Cao said. "It's a reconstruction of the story in a new framework, an anti-cult framework."

    Liu Ling, a Peking University graduate student who has been studying the Almighty God group for two years as part of her thesis work, said she had read numerous media reports about the group's violent acts but had been unable to verify most of them.

    She was able to substantiate one incident in which sect members abducted 34 members of a house church and tried to indoctrinate them, and more recently occasions of Almighty God believers invading house church services, pushing pastors offstage and trumpeting their own teachings.

    Because house churches are not legal, their members would be reluctant to report harassment. "When they're raided and attacked by Almighty God, they would just warn other home churches, not tell police," she said.

    Liu said she interviewed relatives of Almighty God believers who said members of the sect had broken their windows or set small fires in their yards to intimidate them into joining the group. However, she added, the slaying of Wu, apparently a total stranger, did not fit any known pattern of the group's behavior.

    Other details of Wu's slaying as reported in state-run media have raised eyebrows, including witness reports that the unemployed Zhang and his group arrived in a Porsche Cayenne and that they carried out such an attack at a restaurant near a police station.

    Pastor Wu Chi-wai, general secretary of the resource group Hong Kong Church Renewal Movement, says the Almighty God group is "quite rich" and has bought full-page ads in local newspapers to trumpet its beliefs. He says his organization has heard reports that the sect has kidnapped and bullied people and tried to blackmail others with accusations of sexual improprieties, but that the McDonald's killing seems out of the ordinary.

    "Some people are not certain that this is linked" to the sect, he said. "It's quite difficult to get true information from Mainland China … and some say maybe the government uses the same kind of tactics as Almighty God."

    Nicole Liu in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.



    China jails 21 members of banned religious cult

    Reuters, December 10, 2014

    BEIJING (Reuters) - Courts in two Chinese cities handed jail terms to 21 members of a banned religious cult, state media said on Wednesday, in the latest action against a group that saw two of its members condemned to death in October.

    China's Communist Party, obsessed with social stability, brooks no challenge to its rule. It has cracked down on cults, which have multiplied in recent years. Demonstrations have been put down with force and some sect leaders executed.

    China has vowed to levy harsher punishments on anyone spreading superstitions or undermining the law through the use of a religious institution.

    Members of the group, Quannengshen, or the Church of Almighty God, which had preached predictions of a global apocalypse in 2012, killed a 37-year-old woman in the eastern province of Shandong in May.

    Two people were handed death sentences for the killing, which sparked a national outcry after it emerged that the woman was beaten to death for refusing to give her telephone number to group members.

    Two members, Zhang Shuzhi, 44, and Geng Yuqin, 63, received seven- and four-year prison terms on Wednesday in northeastern Liaoning province, the official Xinhua news agency said, describing the duo as "core" members of the group.

    "The court upheld evidence that Zhang and Geng actively recruited new members for the Church of the Almighty God cult, claiming that only the cult could save them," Xinhua said.

    Nineteen members of the group received prison terms ranging between 2-1/2 years and six years in neighboring Jilin province, where authorities in the city of Yanji had cracked down on the cult, Xinhua said in a separate report.

    In 1999, then-President Jiang Zemin launched a campaign to crush the Falun Gong religious group.

    It was banned as an "evil cult" after thousands of practitioners staged a surprise but peaceful sit-in outside the leadership compound in Beijing to demand official recognition of their movement.

    (Reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)