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Chinese Christians Seeking Asylum Fly to US

UPDATED: After arrest in Bangkok, the “Mayflower church” leaves for America.
Chinese Christians Seeking Asylum Fly to US
Image: Sakchai Lalit / AP Photo
Members of Shenzhen Holy Reformed Church in China prepare to submit their applications for asylum at the United Nations refugee office in Bangkok, Thailand in September 2022.

Update (April 7):

Nearly all 63 members of the Shenzhen Holy Reformed Church (SHRC) will celebrate Easter in the United States. A week after the Bangkok police arrested the congregation’s 28 adults and 35 children, 59 of the members are flying to their new home in America. One pregnant woman and her family will stay in Bangkok until the baby’s birth, which is expected to be April 20. They are also released and staying in a hotel now.

The Wall Street Journal confirmed the group’s departure from Thailand through a spokeswoman for the United Nations’ refugee agency and a Thai police official.

Thai officials had intended to deport church members who they had detained for overstaying their visas, according to the Journal. The congregation had relocated to the country after they were unable to gain asylum in South Korea, which they fled to in late 2019 and early 2020.

Now, the community will arrive in Dallas on Good Friday and then travel to the city of Tyler, where religious persecution advocacy group Freedom Seekers International has been working to resettle them. US activists credited the State Department for ensuring that the community arrived in America, rather than China.

SHRC members had long hoped to resettle in the United States, an outcome that had secured the backing of former Representative Frank Wolf, head of the US Commission on Religious Freedom, and ChinaAid’s Bob Fu.

As early as last year, churches in Texas had agreed to sponsor the congregation after their arrival, including providing housing, living expenses, and help settling in. The US has often provided resettlement or humanitarian parole for people facing persecution from the Chinese government, including formerly detained Uyghurs, human rights activists, and house church Christians (including a family from Early Rain Covenant Church.)

SHRC pastor Pan Yongguang told CT last year that the time in South Korea and Thailand had been “the hardest time in my pastoral ministry.”

“On earth, Christians are sojourners. We can keep moving forward, but Thailand isn’t my destination; neither is the United States. We are walking toward our heavenly home.”


Members of a Chinese house church spent the night at a Bangkok police facility Friday after paying fines for overstaying their visas. Human rights groups fear that the 28 adults and 35 children who were detained Thursday could be repatriated to China where they would likely face prison time.

On Friday, a Thai court in Pattaya released the church members after they paid their fines. Deana Brown, one of two Americans staying with the group, told The Associated Press they expected to be able to return to their hotel nearby. Instead, they were put on two buses with police escorts and taken to Bangkok. A Thai police officer told the AP it was normal to bring violators of the immigration law to Bangkok for processing.

Yet confusion spread when one police officer told some church members that they were headed to the airport in Bangkok where they would be sent back to China, according to ChinaAid’s Bob Fu. Frightened, they forced the bus to stop and disembarked. Videos showed the church members, some crying, on the side of the road as two women said they had been hit and stepped on by officers.

Only after they were given reassurances by phone that they would not be taken to the airport did they reboard the bus and resume their journey, the AP reported. They were then taken to the Police Club in northern Bangkok—as the city’s Immigration Detention Center is notoriously overcrowded—where they will stay until they can get bailed out.

Their fears of being taken to the airport are not unfounded: In past cases concerning Chinese dissidents, the Chinese government has repatriated asylum seekers in Thailand immediately after their trial. If Pastor Pan Yongguang and his congregants are sent back to China, they will face retaliation, abuse, and prison time for speaking out about religious persecution, said Fu.

Members of Shenzhen Holy Reformed Church, known as the “Mayflower church,” left China in 2019 due to religious restrictions and tried unsuccessfully to gain asylum in South Korea before coming to Thailand and applying for refugee status at Bangkok’s UN refugee office.

Fu said that the raid didn’t come as a surprise: Last week, the congregation noticed one member had been acting strangely. When confronted, he admitted to working with China’s state security and had been coerced into revealing the group’s location. Fu said church members last saw the man being escorted away by Chinese operatives, leaving behind his wife and daughter, and he hasn’t been seen since.

Pan and the group went into hiding for a few days, then returned to their hotel. At about 11 a.m. on Thursday, about 20 Thai immigration police showed up and asked to see their passports and visas, which had expired in October.

Brown of Freedom Seekers International, an NGO that helps persecuted Christians, had just arrived that morning to help the Mayflower church members when the police arrived, some taking photos and videos. Around 2 p.m., they transported the entire group to an immigration center 30 minutes away.

Officials interrogated Pan and other church members. As night fell, Brown said the officials debated bringing the group to the Bangkok detention center, but ultimately decided to bring them to a nearby police station instead.

Concerned about the women and children sleeping on the floor, Brown said officials agreed to let them return to their hotel as long as they signed a form and agreed to be fingerprinted. However the church members feared that signing the forms could send them back to China, so they ended up spending the night at the station.

“In the past, the Chinese government engaged transnational repression activities by abducting Chinese dissidents from Thailand,” said Abraham Cooper, vice chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, in a statement. “We urge the US government to use all feasible tools at its disposal to ensure Mayflower Church members’ safety.”

Fu noted that top US officials have been briefed on the Mayflower church’s situation and are deliberating what to do next, while lawmakers have been calling the Thai embassy telling them not to send the Christians back to China. ChinaAid and other groups have pushed the Biden administration to grant the 63 people immediate emergency asylum, as it has for fleeing Ukrainians and Afghans, as they face imminent danger from the long arm of China.

Since the church left China two years ago, it has drawn support from rights groups and American officials, including Rashad Hussain, the US ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. Freedom Seekers International and ChinaAid had already found six Texas churches that have agreed to support Mayflower church families for a full year after they arrive in the United States.

Led by Pan, the unregistered congregation held a vote and decided to leave China after facing increased monitoring and interrogations. Police insisted that Pan shut down both the church and the Christian school it ran, as well as ending contact with churches in the West. The congregation first flew to Jeju Island in South Korea in hopes of gaining asylum, only to find their appeals repeatedly rejected. (The Korean government typically rejects nearly all asylum claims from Chinese nationals.)

The group voted again to relocate to Thailand in hopes of gaining refugee status from the UN. Once in Bangkok, they found themselves tailed and harassed by CCP agents as they waited to go through the refugee approval process, which could take two more years.

“Pray that the right people in the US government see their plight and allow Americans to rescue them—just give us that opportunity,” Brown said early Friday morning from the Pattaya police station where she had spent the night with the Mayflower church members.

“Pray for the church: They are all stretched, they all have PTSD,” she said. “Pray that they would be encouraged and have hope. It gets hard hiding for such a long time.”

[ This article is also available in 简体中文 한국어, and 繁體中文. ]

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