China's state-run media reported that more than 500 members of a "fringe Christian group" were arrested by authorities of that country for spreading rumors about the impending "Mayan apocalypse," ABC News said Tuesday.
The arrests come just days before Friday, December 21, 2012 – a date which is said by some groups across the world to correlate with a prophesied Mayan apocalypse. Adherents of these groups have been spreading the news that "the sun will not shine and electricity will not work for three days beginning on December 21."
China Central Television reported that over 400 members of the group were arrested in the western Qinghai province alone. Known as Almighty God or Eastern Lighting (a reference to the Bible's Book of Matthew), the organization teaches that Jesus has been reborn in central China as a woman. The group's origin is murky: a 2005 article in the Christian Research Journal reports that both TIME magazine and leaked security documents point to a man named Zhao Weishan as the founder in 1989, and cites variable accounts which point to a membership between 300,000 to over 1 million, though there are perhaps only tens of thousands of active followers.
What is known is that the organization – which CRJ calls a "cult" – has been accused of crimes against Christians, who have been reportedly "deceived, kidnapped, brainwashed, beaten, poisoned, and blackmailed" by the group's operatives. In April 2002, Eastern Lightning members posing as representatives of the Haggai Institute reportedly kidnapped 34 leaders of the China Gospel Fellowship. State-run Chinese news sources claim that Eastern Lightning has encouraged its followers to "exterminate the great red dragon," a clear reference to the Communist Party, and found a new nation under its own rule.
China's Communist Party is notorious for crackdowns against groups that threaten the country's perceived social stability. In 1999, former President Jiang Zemin labeled the Falun Gong an "evil cult" and started a campaign of harassment and arrests to destroy it after the group peacefully petitioned for official recognition.
The December 21 date holds a fascination for some Chinese. One farmer in Hebei province is cashing in by selling custom-built survival pods containing "oxygen, food, water and safety belts" for roughly $40,000 a pop, while another in the far-west Xinjiang Autonomous Region spent $132,000 on a flood-proof barge containing 60 tons of steel and 30 layers of protective fiber resin.
While calamitous events are indeed occurring for the members of Eastern Lightning in the build-up to December 21, don't get too worried: the Mayan calendar does not predict the end of the world, but instead the rebirth of a cycle. According to a 2007 article in USA TODAY, "for the ancient Maya, it was a huge celebration to make it to the end of a whole cycle."