After experiencing years of persecution in China and failing to get asylum in South Korea, a gaggle of 57 Chinese Christians arrived in Thailand late final month to use for refugee standing by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
Church members describe their lives as “turbulent” and below fixed risk — even after they left China in 2019.
The church skilled repeated harassment from native authorities since its founding within the Chinese metropolis of Shenzhen as Beijing tightened its management over spiritual communities.
“Police raided our gathering place, took me in for questioning, and confiscated our computers and Bibles since 2014,” stated Pan Yongguang, pastor of the church.
“After I signed a public statement criticizing the Regulations on Religious Affairs in 2018, police pressured my landlord to evict me, forcing me to keep moving,” Pan informed DW.
“The church was also forced to keep changing gathering places. When I tried to attend a training in Thailand in 2019, local police banned me from leaving my house, causing me to miss the flight.”
Reining in Christianity
After dozens of Chinese have been arrested in December 2018, Pan and members of his church determined to flee China.
“We knew the space would only become smaller for the Christian community and authorities would increase the pressure on us,” Pan stated. “We made up our mind and left China for Jeju Island in South Korea.”
While China’s regulation requires Christians to worship solely at church buildings affiliated with spiritual establishments managed by the Communist Party, authorities largely tolerated unbiased “house churches” for many years.
But since 2018, Beijing has intensified crackdowns on Christian church buildings throughout the nation. Some church buildings have been raided — together with the Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu — whereas colleges run by Christian church buildings have largely been compelled to close down.
“There used to be hundreds of schools run by Christian churches in China, but since 2018, authorities began to force these schools to shut down. Some teachers were arrested while others were accused of illegal operations. Under such pressure, very few schools can continue to operate in China,” Pan informed DW.
Plans to hunt asylum thwarted
Pan and his church members arrived in South Korea between October and December 2019, simply earlier than the COVID pandemic compelled China to shut off its borders.
However, the Chinese authorities continued to harass them: Some church members and their members of the family in China obtained threats from China’s Ministry of State Security.
“The Chinese embassy in South Korea called me twice and asked me to pick up a package over there,” stated Jing-jing Chen, one other church member. “Nobody sent anything to me, so I suspected it to be a trap. Chinese state security agents also kept asking my parents about when I would return to China.”
Apart from the continued threats from Beijing, church members have been informed by immigration attorneys in South Korea that the probabilities of them being granted refugee standing in South Korea have been very slim, prompting them to rethink the subsequent best choice for the group.
According to the South Korean authorities’s information, only one% of asylum-seekers’ functions have been authorised in 2021.
“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,” Pan informed DW.
“After knowing we wouldn’t be granted refuge in South Korea, we decided to go to Thailand and apply for refugee status with the United Nations Refugee Agency.”
However, there are different potential dangers dealing with them in Thailand.
Over the previous couple of years, a number of Chinese dissidents within the Southeast Asian nation have been deported to China whereas ready for the UN to approve their refugee standing. This development has elevated considerations amongst Chinese asylum-seekers.
“We are well aware of the potential risks in Thailand, but since there is no future for us in South Korea, Thailand is an opportunity for our members,” Pan stated.
‘They keep following us’
Soon after the church members arrived in Thailand final month, they observed strangers following them.
“The day after we checked into our hotel, some people began to take photos and videos of us,” Pan informed DW.
“When I submitted our application to the UN Refugee Agency, a car followed me while continuing to film me. And during an interview at a restaurant, another guy took photos of me but was stopped by me and the reporter. However, we were too late to stop him from sending the photos out.”
Church member Chen additionally informed DW that they’ve modified motels a number of occasions since arriving in Thailand.
“Wherever we go, they will follow us. They keep taking photos of us as well as sending different people to follow us,” she stated.
Pan admited that the extent of harassment and risk in the direction of him and the church members are greater than he initially anticipated.
“Now, I always contemplate about whether I should leave the hotel or not,” he informed DW. “While adults will occasionally go out to buy stuff, underage church members are afraid to leave the hotel. The threats against us have become huge obstructions to our lives.”
Protecting the persecuted
Patrick Poon, a visiting researcher on the Institute of Comparative Law at Japan’s Meiji University, informed DW that the United Nations must do extra to make sure the protection of Chinese Christians in search of refuge in Thailand.
“They should ask special permission from the Thai government to provide shelters and protective measures for asylum-seekers,” he stated.
“Many of them need to find their next destinations on their own and they can’t work. They are facing many issues about how to sustain their lives while waiting for the news about their refugee status. What the UN has done is far from enough. If they want to show that people can seek refuge in Thailand, they need to do more to ensure their safety,” Patrick added.
Church member Chen says she hopes to take her two kids to the United States, as spiritual freedom is assured there.
“I want my children to be able to go to schools run by churches, and I want them to receive a Christian education,” she informed DW.
“Religious freedom and my children’s right to receive education are the reasons why I decided to leave China in the first place.”