China arrests nearly 1,000 members of Christian sect, referring to it as a cult: Xinhua

BEIJING (AFP) - China has since June arrested nearly 1,000 members of a Christian sect that Beijing refers to as a "cult", state media said on Tuesday.

Those arrested are members of Almighty God, a Christian group that has found followers in some parts of the Chinese countryside for more than a decade.

They include "high-level organisers and backbone members" of the group, the official Xinhua news agency said, citing officials. It did not give details of what crimes the suspects, said to come from more than six provinces, are accused of.

China has previously cracked down harshly on groups it labels as "cults", most notably the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which was banned in the late 1990s.

Falun Gong members insist they were targeted because the ruling Communist party saw the group as a threat, detaining and allegedly torturing thousands of its followers.

Beijing has for years struggled to suppress the Almighty God group, with state media reporting the arrest of "nearly 1,000" followers in 2012, when the organisation was under the spotlight for predicting an apocalypse.

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

State media says the group brainwashes its members and encourages them to isolate themselves from family and friends.

This year's crackdown follows the murder in May of a woman at a McDonalds in the eastern province of Shandong, which police blamed on members of Almighty God.

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

China keeps tight controls over religion, permitting worship at government-controlled Buddhist, Muslim, Protestant, and Catholic establishments but banning other religious organisations.

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