Pastor Pan Yongguang and almost the entire 61 members of his Chinese language home church have arrived in Thailand. The congregation left the southeastern metropolis of Shenzhen for South Korea between 2019 and 2020, making an attempt unsuccessfully for months to achieve refugee standing.
Final month, the group left Jeju Island for Bangkok, hoping to attraction to the UN refugee workplace. Their seek for a house continues as they hope to make another transfer within the close to future, this time to the US.
It’s a search that has come at a major price.
The congregants of Shenzhen Holy Reformed Church (SHRC) left their skilled jobs, their houses in Shenzhen, and aged dad and mom—simply earlier than the beginning of the pandemic. Pan has shouldered the accountability of not simply the non secular care of his congregants, however the logistics of on a regular basis life—together with work, housing, medical care, security, and journey—in international international locations. He’s additionally confronted pushback from some Chinese language church buildings who imagine he ought to keep and face persecution quite than run away.
However he believes he’s following God’s name to guide his church to better freedom, just like the Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower: “For the flock’s non secular blessing I’ve invested extra and paid the next value,” Pan stated. “No person flees like this with children and ladies from one county to a different. This isn’t fleeing. That is leaving Egypt.”
After quietly leaving the South Korean island of Jeju in late August, Pan introduced his congregation’s newest whereabouts to the world by means of a Wall Avenue Journal (WSJ) article on Monday. That very same day, congregants utilized for refugee standing at Bangkok’s UN refugee workplace. Their hope to resettle in the US has the backing of US officers together with former Consultant Frank Wolf, head of the US Fee on Spiritual Freedom.
Within the meantime, the group faces risks in Thailand. Not solely do many within the get together want extensions on their vacationer visas or danger being within the nation illegally, they are saying they’re being monitored by Chinese language operatives and concern repatriation to the Mainland. One household continues to be caught in Jeju because the Chinese language consulate gained’t give their new child daughter a passport, rendering her stateless. This stress is pushing the members of the “Mayflower church” to the brink.
“I typically pray and ask God for extra grace and energy,” stated Pan. “These previous two years had been tough to bear. They’ve been the toughest time in my pastoral ministry.”
Leaving the homeland
Nie Yunfeng started attending SHRC in 2012 and for a number of years taught on the Christian college began by the church. She remembers legislation enforcement pressuring the owner to evict the varsity and church, inflicting them to consistently transfer areas. Police would barge into worship companies or courses, telling them to interrupt up their conferences.
The stress elevated after the implementation of the revised religious regulation in 2018, with church leaders dealing with elevated monitoring and interrogations. Police insisted Pan shut down the varsity, disband the church, and cease contact with church buildings within the West (SHRC is tied to the Presbyterian Church of America).
So when Pan concluded the one possibility was to depart China, Nie was satisfied, particularly as she thought-about her kids’s future. Within the fall of 2019, she and her two kids arrived in South Korea, the place Pan and her initially unsure husband had been scouting out a spot for the church to go.
“In China we’re unable to see the true info,” she stated of her husband’s change of coronary heart. “When my husband investigated issues in Korea, he may see the reality and [leaving] grew to become extra pressing.”
About 60 congregants, half of them kids, joined them on Jeju Island, a vacationer vacation spot off the southern tip of the Korean peninsula.
As soon as in Jeju, they had been stunned to seek out the Korean authorities sometimes rejects almost all asylum claims from Chinese language nationals. With out authorized standing, most of the previously middle-class congregants labored menial jobs together with washing dishes and harvesting greens.
Pan stated many individuals had been exhausted from the labor-intensive work that paid meager wages. Jeju winters had been chilly and snowy, not like steamy Shenzhen the place winter lows are temperate. Some obtained calls from folks claiming to work on the Chinese language consulate asking them to come back choose up packages, which they feared was a lure. Again in China, police harassed church members who stayed behind and questioned the relations of those that left.
Nie stated she doesn’t remorse leaving China, however issues grew to become harder when her father-in-law was identified with liver most cancers. Her husband, who’s the one son within the household, needed to be there to take care of his father, however they realized that in the event that they returned, they might face repercussions and by no means have one other likelihood to depart.
Regardless of the challenges, the church was in a position to worship collectively freely every Sunday, first at a rented area, then in a Korean church that allowed them to make use of their constructing, and at last at a lodge eating room. Nie stated she may lastly worship in peace, not fearful in the event that they’d be raided or leaping on the sound of a knock on the door.
She is grateful her kids have been in a position to securely attend the church college—in China, many of those faculties have been closed and fogeys compelled to ship their kids to government schools. Nie gave beginning to a child whereas in Jeju in 2020 and now could be 34 weeks pregnant with their fourth baby.
Journey to Thailand
This February, SHRC misplaced the ultimate attraction of their unique asylum case. With a view to keep away from deportation, your entire congregation refiled their asylum claims, which price $1,000 per particular person.
After Korean and US officers informed the church members they had been unlikely to obtain refugee standing in Korea, Texas-based persecution advocacy group ChinaAid steered a attainable pathway out: getting the entire group to Thailand, the place they might attraction to the UN refugee workplace. Not like Korea, Thailand just isn’t get together to UN refugee treaties, and so the company—quite than the federal government—can straight course of and decide refugee circumstances.
So in August, the group moved to yet one more new place the place they didn’t communicate the language or perceive the tradition. With Nie’s due date quick approaching, she and her household arrived in Thailand first to obtain medical care attributable to issues in her being pregnant.
As soon as in Thailand, the church confronted elevated risks they didn’t expertise in Jeju: Individuals they understood to be Chinese language operatives tailed the group, taking pictures and movies in every single place they went, in response to Pan and different sources. After they dropped off their purposes on the UN refugee workplace on Monday Monday, Pan observed a automotive parked throughout the road with a person inside videotaping them. Later, two strangers sat close by and videotaped them as Associated Press journalists interviewed Pan and the church members.
“After arriving in Thailand, I actually felt the hazard,” Pan stated. “Although in Korea I knew Thailand could be extra harmful, these previous few days I’ve seen that it’s far more harmful than I imagined.”
Church members fear the Chinese language authorities may take them and repatriate them again to China, the place they might seemingly face extreme punishment, a not-unfounded fear.
They’re additionally involved concerning the household who’s unable to depart Jeju. After a WSJ reporter reached out to the Chinese language consulate in Korea inquiring about its refusal to grant the child a passport, an officer referred to as the household warning they had been harming nationwide safety, in response to ChinaAid’s Bob Fu. The officer then urged them to write down a confession admitting that they had been incorrect for leaving China and that the church compelled them to go to Jeju. In trade, the consulate would give them the child’s passport, Fu stated.
In the meantime in Washington, DC, Fu and US officers are advocating for the Biden administration to resettle the group in the US. Church buildings in Texas have already agreed to sponsor the congregation after their arrival, offering housing, residing bills, and assist settling in. The US has typically offered resettlement or humanitarian parole for folks dealing with persecution from the Chinese language authorities, together with previously detained Uyghurs, human rights activists, and home church Christians (together with a family from Early Rain Covenant Church.)
In response to CT’s inquiry, the US State Division stated it didn’t touch upon particular person circumstances however was dedicated to serving to victims of non secular persecution around the globe.
Pan stated his quickly thinning hair is an indication of the stress he’s been underneath main the church within the wilderness these previous few years. At instances, he stated, he felt so weak that he didn’t assume he may carry this accountability. He’d take walks along with his spouse, speaking and praying about his troubles.
Studying and meditating on Psalms has additionally introduced Pan solace, he stated. The church sometimes sings psalms each Sunday and at first of every college day, so the laments and worship of David and the psalmists are nicely worn on their lips. Because the church members all lived in the identical constructing in Jeju, he would hear totally different households singing the psalms by means of the partitions, a fantastic sound of reward.
When congregants come to him homesick and eager for their household in China, Pan reminds them of their true house: “On earth, Christians are sojourners. We will hold shifting ahead, however Thailand isn’t my vacation spot; neither is the US. We’re strolling towards our heavenly house.”