Nearly 1,000 people, including members of a banned Christian group, have been arrested in China for allegedly spreading end of the world rumours, a state-owned newspaper is reporting.
More than 400 members of the “Almighty God” sect were detained in the northwest province of Qinghai, the China Daily reported on Thursday. Another 350 people were also arrested in the southwestern province of Guizhou.
A few hundreds more were arrested in five other provinces.
Members of the group believe Friday, December 21, marks the end of the world as the Mayan “Long Count” calendar finishes a 5,200-year cycle.
Beyond that, little was known about the group until the arrests of its members, which has attracted international media attention, Timothy Hildebrandt, a lecturer in Chinese Politics at King’s College London, told Al Jazeera.
“It’s interesting because a lot of people have sort of been laughing about it because it does seem rather silly that you have the government cracking down on these folks who are doomsdayers,” Hildebrandt said.
Hildebrandt said the crackdown might be a reflection of a larger concern by Chinese authorities because it happened in Qinghai, where there are large Muslim and Tibetan populations.
“The place where this happened ends up potentially mattering more than the timing and that’s ultimately going to explain quite well why it happened,” Hildebrandt said, adding that the Chinese government might be sending an indirect message to groups that might threaten government stability.
Police claimed that the group has also urged followers to slay the “red dragon” an apparent reference to China’s ruling Communist Party.
Authorities collected and destroyed leaflets passed out by what they say are members of an “evil cult” – the same description they use when calling another banned group, the internationally renowned Falun Gong.
“December 21 is approaching, and on that day half of the world’s good people will die, and all evil people will die out,” one pamphlets reportedly reads. “Only if you join the Almighty God movement can you avoid death and be saved.”
“This one says I must pass it to 100 people today or something bad will happen to me,” said Police Officer Cao Wei refering to a pamphlet. “The cult spreads rumours like this.”
According to the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, the end-of-the-world predictions received wide attention in mainland China following the release of the film “This Year”, which depicts the supposed Mayan prophecy.
In an interview with Christian News Network, Bob Fu of the Texas-based organisation China Aid confirmed that Almighty God is a cult.
Fu said that the group had a history of engaging in questionable activities.
“This group has some real issues,” Fu said, adding that the Chinese government “is in a wrong place to determine what is a cult and what isn’t”.
“If a group of citizens distributes their flyers on street … that’s not a justified or legal [reason to arrest them],” he said.
China has in the past cracked down on religious movements like the Falun Gong, and most recently Buddhist Tibetans who engaged in self-immolation in protest of Chinese-rule in Tibet.