BEIJING -- In the wake of a brutal murder by members of a religious sect, the Chinese government is renewing its crackdown on cults.
State-run publications, such as the Xinhua News Agency, are producing a steady stream of articles alarming citizens to the dangers of religious cults, known in Chinese as "xiejiao," which in English means "evil religions."
Xinhua reports that the government has handed out four-year prison terms to 59 of the 1,500 cult members arrested since 2012. These 59 individuals were charged with "using religious organizations to disrupt the legal system."
But human rights advocates and mainstream religious leaders in China see this latest anti-cult campaign as a reflection of the government's broader fear of organized religion, especially groups it cannot control. Teng Biao, a defense lawyer and dissident, tells ABC News that the recent campaign is "inextricably connected with the repression against religions in general" because "religious belief is an assault on the government's official atheist position."
The killing that sparked this campaign was particularly violent and grabbed national attention. On May 28, six members of a religious sect entered a McDonald's restaurant in Zhaoyuan on a recruiting mission. A young Chinese mother, Wu Shuoyan, was inside waiting for her 7-year-old son and husband to arrive. The group approached her, asking for her number. When she refused, members of the group beat her to death with fists, chairs, and a metal mop.
The religious sect calls itself "Church of Almighty God," known in Chinese as "Quannengshen," which translates as, "All-powerful Spirit." It was banned by the government in 1995, but now is believed to have over a million members in China, with many from rural areas.
The group is well known for its unorthodox and inflammatory behaviors. Arrests started in 2012 after members of the sect organized outdoor prayer meetings and disseminated pamphlets asserting that joining the sect would save believers from the impending apocalypse on Dec. 21, the date many eschatological groups believe to be doomsday.
Some observers see the government's new campaign as another round of efforts to counter unsanctioned belief groups. Cao Nanlai, associate professor at People's University in Beijing, told The Los Angeles Times that, over the past five years, the crack down on unsanctioned sects was not very visible, but is now "a big issue and has become a top priority for government officials."
The Chinese government has a historical tendency to try and manage all religious activities. Officially, the Communist Party permits Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, and Catholic and Protestant Christianity. Religious groups are supposed to be affiliated with a government-approved umbrella organization, but millions of Chinese have joined unsanctioned religious groups instead, a development that makes Chinese authorities nervous because many uprisings have sprung from quasi-Christian sects in the past.
This is not the first campaign targeted at religious groups. In May, another government campaign ostensibly aimed at demolishing illegally built churches spilled over to target legally registered churches in southern Zhejiang province. An anonymous worshipper at Xiaying Holy Love church in Ningbo told The Telegraph that a provincial official ordered the removal of a cross on top of the church because it "was too shiny, too tall and too big." When the congregation refused, the officials told them the whole church would be torn down.
The country's religious leaders and human rights advocates are worried that the campaigns targeting religious groups will affect doctrinally mainstream religious groups that are unsanctioned by the Communist Party. Wu Chi-wai, general secretary of the Hong Kong Church Renewal Movement, said that doctrinally mainstream but unsanctioned house churches in Wenzhou have already experienced the effects of the crackdown as the government demolished religious buildings.
Wu also points out that the recent events resulted in "tighter control on religious politics" and the government's fear for "the West's use of religion to infiltrate into the politics of China means churches have been victimized."
ABC News' Gloria Riviera contributed to this report