Esoteric and often violent sects have been a feature of Chinese life for centuries, the most disruptive of which was the largely Buddhist White Lotus cult that rose up against the Qing dynasty in the 19th century. The ideological vacuum left by the country’s diminishing belief in the radical communist ideology espoused by Mao Zedong has given rise to an almost fanatical interest in alternative religions.
Li Heping, a lawyer for the men, said that court authorities had notified him of the executions of Xu Shuangfu, Li Maoxing and Wang Jun. “I felt very shocked, because lawyers and family members were not informed about the verdict before they were executed,” he said.
Xu had been accused of homicide, fraud, illegal gathering and the illegal detention of others.
The China Aid Association, which is based in Texas, said that it had seen a court document that accused Xu and other church leaders of murdering 20 leaders of the Eastern Lighting cult between 2002 and 2004. They were also accused of defrauding others out of 32 million yuan ( £2 million). But the US-based group said that their confessions were extorted through severe torture and the funds that they were accused of defrauding were donations from Christians.
According to Chinese law, a court cannot convict someone based on testimonies alone, especially when the confession was extracted through torture, Mr Li said. “I believe my client was tortured to confess,” he added.
Mr Li also said that prosecutors never introduced corroborating physical evidence and had relied solely on the testimony of accused church members.
“The authorities presented this as a mafia-like conspiracy, but they never came close to proving their case,” he said.
The deaths of Xu and the others come after the executions of another 12 people for similar crimes. A total of 22 people have received death sentences in connection with the case.
Inside and outside China, Eastern Lightning and the Three Grade Servant Church are viewed as cults that do not follow the Christian teachings of orthodox churches.
The Three Grade Servant Church has, like other sects, enjoyed a surge in popularity in recent years and is now estimated to have between 500,000 and 1,000,000 followers.
Officials from orthodox churches said that the sect had been feuding for several years with the Eastern Lighting cult and that both had kidnapped, tortured and injured each other’s adherents.
Chan Kim-kwong, of the Hong Kong Christian Council, said: “They are well known for their brutal ways . . . so many mainstream Christian groups are terrified of them.
“Whether this is a religious freedom issue and whether the killings were motivated by religion, that’s the debatable issue.”