Over 60 Chinese Christians have settled in the US state of Texas after three years of seeking refuge in various countries. Observers say the state of religious freedom in China remains “bleak.”
After years of government persecution in China, 63 Chinese Christians arrived in the south-central US state of Texas last week from Thailand.
“Freedom Seekers International will aid in the resettlement of the exiled church,” said ChinaAid, a Texas-based non-profit organization that helps persecuted Chinese people.
They arrived after “close coordination with the US Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, various UN agencies, and the Thai government,” the NGO added.
The group’s journey from the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, which they left over three years ago, has been long and turbulent.
Harassment, surveillance and detention
After years of persecution — including repeated police raids and property confiscation — members of the Shenzhen Holy Reformed Church (SHRC) arrived in South Korea in late 2019, hoping to be granted refugee status.
However, they said they continued to face threats and intimidation from the Chinese government.
After being told by immigration lawyers that their chance of acquiring refugee status in South Korea was slim, the group headed to Thailand in August 2022, hoping to apply for refugee status with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
“We knew if we kept staying in South Korea, we wouldn’t be able to make it to our final destination, and we were done living without legal identities in a country,” said Pan Yongguang, the church’s pastor.
The Chinese Christians told reporters in the US that when they arrived in Thailand they were immediately followed by strangers who took photos and videos of them almost on a daily basis.
Despite their efforts to change hotels, they said the stalking and harassment continued.
“I’ve seen Chinese operatives take videos and pictures of them and we never knew at what point the operatives would kidnap the church members and repatriate them to China,” said Deana Brown, the founder and CEO of Freedom Seekers International (FSI), an organization that focuses on facilitating refugee resettlement to the United States.
She and her group have spent time with the persecuted church members over the past year.
Detained in Thailand
On March 30, immigration police in Thailand arrested the whole group. Brown said that the members had first been taken to an immigration center, then transferred them to a local police station.
After going to court the next day, authorities told them they would be driven back to their residence in the coastal city of Pattaya, but they were instead brought to the Thai capital.
“When we got to Bangkok, the church members were taken straight to the detention center. That was frightening and difficult,” Brown told DW, adding that the “imminent danger” of the 63 Chinese Christians being deported back to China pushed her group and other organizations to work with US authorities, which ended with their ultimate resettlement.
“The Shenzhen church members are lucky that they were resettled to the US, rather than being deported back to China,” said Patrick Poon, a visiting researcher at the University of Tokyo. “It’s always risky for Chinese Christians to seek asylum abroad. Even if they are in countries like Thailand, they will still face the potential danger of being arrested and deported back to China.”
Pressure from China increases the risks
According to ChinaAid founder Bob Fu, many members of ethnic minorities in China and dissidents who tried to acquire UN refugee status in Thailand have been deported to China or abducted, raising suspicion that the Thai authorities may have helped Beijing in certain operations.
“Thailand and other countries near China will often feel the pressure from Beijing, so they may complicate the process for Chinese Christians or dissidents to get refugee status or even deport them back to China in the more extreme cases,” said Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Poon from the University of Tokyo told DW that the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) had a responsibility to address the risks facing asylum seekers, especially those from China.
“They should negotiate with the Thai government to create a sanctuary that can ensure refugees’ safety,” he told DW, adding that the UNHCR may also have to consider whether there is a need to move its regional hub to another country in Asia.
Rui-Teng Ren — a member of the Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, who now lives in exile in the US — warned that while Chinese Christians would continue to find ways to uphold their religious beliefs, the level of risk that they faced in China would likely grow.
“More preachers are being arrested now, and in many cases, Chinese authorities will put pressure on members of Christian churches by targeting their family members,” she said. “Christians in China will face more threats to their personal safety going forward.”
Source: DW News