Chinese authorities have rounded up members of the “Church of Almighty God” as part of an unprecedented crackdown on the outlawed group after its predictions of the world’s end on Friday spread panic throughout Chinese society.
The group - which boasts an estimated membership of between 100,000 and several million - has gained notoriety in recent weeks after it launched a series of apocalyptic warnings through distributing pamphlets, text messages and social media offensives.
Founded in 1992, the underground sect believes the world’s end will begin on 21 December - the last day of the Mayan Long Count calendar. The group predict that on this day the world will experience three days of complete darkness, before 72 days of apocalyptic natural disasters beginning on the 1st January, 2013.
“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," reads an alleged handout found in Shaoxing province.
In the past, the group has been condemned for its unsavoury recruitment tactics, which include brainwashing the poor or mentally unstable. In some instances, the group has faced accusations of more sinister behaviour, including embezzlement, kidnapping and ritualistic torture.
The church’s prophecies have gained traction in recent years, particularly after the Mayan Apocalypse-inspired Hollywood disaster movie “2012” proved a box office sensation across Chinese cinemas.
Just last week, a knife-wielding man - who later claimed to be “psychologically affected” by the doomsday rumours - attacked 22 children between the ages of 6 and 11 at a school in Henan province.
Elsewhere, shoppers in Sichuan province have flocked in their thousands to stock up for the apocalypse, panic-buying tinned food and candles.
Even more bizarrely, one farmer has built no less than seven fibreglass “survival pods” in preparation for Friday. Each pod - which costs over £30,000 - holds up to 14 people and includes food, water and oxygen supplies. Similar “survival pods” have reportedly sold for up to £500,000 in Zhejiang province, as entrepreneurs capitalise on the credulous.
Aside from the fresh wave of panic the doomsday cult has incited, the church’s manifestos have also called for a “decisive battle” against the “Big Red Dragon” - a euphemism for the Communist party - which goes some way towards explaining the motivation behind the recent crackdown.
In recent weeks, members of group - alternatively known as ‘Eastern Lightning’ - have been involved in violent clashes with the Chinese authorities as the group’s clout has grown.
This sort of anti-religious crackdown is not without precedent in China, particularly given the country’s long history of insurrections based upon spiritual doctrine. As one of the world’s only two states in which over half of society claim to be a-religious (alongside Japan), the Chinese government is particularly sensitive to the subversive threats that quasi-religious movements can pose.
“There are many examples of similar fringe religious movements in China ... but the difference now appears to be its move into politics and its calls to destroy the Communist party”.
In the mid-19th century, the pseudo-Christian Taiping Rebellion - led by a man claiming to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ - devastated half of the country, resulting in the near-collapse of the Qing Empire.
More recently, the Falun Gong group - a non-extremist movement based on elements of Taoism and Buddhism - has been persecuted since 1999, resulting in millions of arrests and as many of 100,000 deaths through execution or brutal "re-education" programmes.