BANGKOK—Days after flying to Thailand to seek asylum, members of a Chinese church crowded into a restaurant to share their stories with reporters. But when they looked over their shoulders, they spotted strangers filming them with cellphones.
Within seconds, they dispersed, fearing that Chinese state security might once again come looking for them.
“Political pressure is growing and there is more and more ideological control,” said Pastor Pan Yongguang, whose church has been on the run for years. “The persecution is getting worse.”
The story of the exile of the Holy Reformed Church in Shenzhen illustrates how the Chinese Communist regime is increasingly striving to control religious faith and its citizens, even far beyond its borders.
Since leaving China for South Korea’s resort island of Jeju three years ago, Pan’s 61 worshipers have been stalked, harassed and received threatening calls and messages despite fleeing hundreds of kilometers (miles), he said. Relatives who remained in China were summoned, interrogated and intimidated. In one case, Chinese diplomats refused to issue a passport to a member’s newborn baby, rendering the baby stateless.
The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) tactics against the Church echo those used against Uyghurs and other Chinese ethnic minorities abroad, as well as fugitives accused of corruption, to coerce them back to China.
In China, Christians are only legally allowed to worship in churches affiliated with CCP-controlled religious groups, but for decades authorities have largely tolerated independent, unregistered “house churches.” They have tens of millions of followers, perhaps more numerous than those of the official groups.
However, in recent years house churches have come under severe pressure, and many major churches have been closed. The CCP has also targeted some believers who are not explicitly opposed to the CCP.
Most members of Pan’s church are young, middle-class married couples, with their children making up about half of the group.
Bob Fu, founder of ChinaAid, a Christian group helping Pan, criticized the CCP’s tightening controls on religion.
“What threat to national security? Fu said. “They don’t go to public places, they don’t try to shame the Chinese government. They are just trying to pursue religious freedom.
China’s foreign ministry said the matter was “not a diplomatic matter” when asked to comment.
Ministry in China has never been easy, Pan said. Since the church started in 2012, she has had to move from house to house as authorities ordered owners to turn them away. The police closely monitored religious gatherings, recording attendees and transporting Pan for questioning from time to time. Questions escalated after it was discovered he was ordained in the Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia, even more acute after new religious regulations in 2018. Police focused on his overseas connections.
“They want to isolate Chinese churches from the outside world,” Pan said.
Pan said the church started thinking about leaving after his friend, an outspoken pastor from the same denomination, was arrested.
The straw that broke the camel’s back came after millions began taking to the streets of Hong Kong in 2019 to protest Beijing’s tightening grip on the city. Pan said they had no connection to the protests, but authorities in their city of Shenzhen, on the mainland bordering Hong Kong, were on high alert under “quasi-martial law”. The church is under excruciating pressure.
Pan decided it was time to put the question to a vote. Most of the members chose to leave.
“At the time, I thought maybe we could come back once things calmed down,” said Nie Yunfeng, who joined the church months after it was founded. “I never imagined things would go so badly.”
Earlier this year, his parents were summoned by the police and questioned about Nie’s faith, as were dozens of relatives of other church members who left for South Korea. Officers across the country, from the central province of Hubei to the tropical island of Hainan, threatened relatives with confiscating state benefits or shutting down their businesses if worshipers did not return to China.
“Your descendants may suffer,” they told Nie’s terrified father. “Tell them to come back right away, otherwise they will face serious consequences.”
Officers tracked down Pan’s brother, sisters and mother and charged him with “treason”, “collusion with foreign forces” and “subversion of state power”. Evidence obtained by Pan and seen by the AP indicates that state security has been ordered to investigate the church.
They left South Korea for Thailand after meetings with local and US officials made it clear that the prospects for refuge were dim. Although it is home to a large active Christian population, South Korea’s cultural and ethnic homogeneity can make it hostile to refugees. Government statistics show that less than 1% of asylum seekers were granted refuge there last year.
So the church decided to flee again. On Monday, church members gathered outside the United Nations refugee office in Bangkok. They piled kraft paper envelopes filled with asylum papers on a mailbox hanging at the entrance.
In Bangkok, members have split between different hotels and are attending Sunday service on Zoom, fearing they will be followed by Chinese police. They spend their days praying, worrying about an uncertain future.
Xie Jianqing, an elder at the church, said the transition has been difficult. Church members, largely white-collar workers from the glittering high-tech metropolis of Shenzhen, had to get used to picking fruit and digging dirt in Jeju Island’s volcanic soil. Now they have no work and their future is even cloudier.
Still, such sacrifices are worth it, Xie said. In China, he was unable to give his children the religious education he wanted because public schools are compulsory and impose an atheistic curriculum steeped in communism. Abroad, he said, his children can learn more about the God he believes in.
“We are ready to pay this price,” he said.