China jails six 'cult' members in continuing crackdown

Defendants stand with police escorts during their trial for the murder of a woman at a McDonald's restaurant, in Yantai City, Shandong province October 11, 2014 in this still image taken from video.

BEIJING - China has jailed six members of a fringe religious group known as "Almighty God" for up to five years for promoting their faith, state-media reported Saturday.

China has cracked down hard on the group, whose members believe that Jesus was reincarnated as a Chinese woman, detaining and imprisoning thousands since labelling it a "cult" in the 1990s.

The court in the western city of Lanzhou said their activities "seriously disturbed social order and the work of state agencies", the official Xinhua news agency said in a brief dispatch.

The six members were found to have held fundraising events and promotional activities, Xinhua said without giving details.

They were each sentenced to between three and five years in jail. The court could not be reached for comment.

China's ruling Communist party is wary of independent organisations, and has cracked down harshly on groups it labels "cults", most notably the Falungong spiritual movement.

It has detained tens of thousands of Falungong members, according to rights groups, with some saying they have been tortured for refusing to give up their beliefs.

A Chinese court in October sentenced two members of Almighty God to death for beating a woman to death at a McDonald's restaurant in the eastern province of Shandong.

The incident prompted a renewed crackdown on Almighty God, though the group on its official website distanced itself from the pair and said they had been forced into confessing.

Beijing has for years struggled to suppress the group, which has attracted followers across China's countryside.

The movement's founder is reported to have fled to the United States.

Almighty God has told members that a "female Jesus" called on members to overthrow the Communist Party, which it refers to as "the big red dragon", the state-run Global Times reported.

China tightly controls the exercise of religion, permitting worship at government-controlled Buddhist, Daoist, Muslim, Protestant and Catholic establishments but banning other religious organisations.

Beijing often proclaims that it grants citizens wide-ranging religious freedoms.

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