by Philip Lenczycki
A persecuted Chinese Christian church has been freed from Thai prison and is bound for Texas, human rights advocates told the Daily Caller News Foundation on Friday.
Over 60 members of the Shenzhen Holy Reformed Church, also known as the Mayflower Church, is scheduled to arrive at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport late Friday evening, ending the church’s three year-long quest for asylum after fleeing Chinese Communist Party (CCP) persecution in 2019, Pastor Bob Fu, founder of ChinaAid, told the DCNF. Despite applying for asylum in Thailand in August, the members of the Mayflower Church were arrested last week for overstaying their visas, prompting international concern that the church might be deported back to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and face persecution.
“This is truly a Good Friday,” Pastor Fu told the DCNF. “ChinaAid welcomes the persecuted ‘Mayflower Church’ to freedom in the United States of America — welcome to Texas!”
Fu, who is a personal friend of the Mayflower Church leader, Pastor Pan Yongguang, worked behind the scenes to draw attention to the church’s plight and organized a campaign to secure the group’s release.
“I can say that it was a large advocacy push that moved the needle,” a human rights activist familiar with the situation told the DCNF. “Once it was clear the group was in imminent danger, partner NGOs, members of Congress and their staff and U.S. Embassy in Bangkok employees jumped into action to get the group to safety.”
Texas Republican Rep. Lance Gooden, who sent a letter to the State Department calling on the U.S. government to intervene on behalf of the Mayflower Church shortly after the church’s arrest, told the DCNF that he was “grateful” for his staff, colleagues and the State Department “for safely ferrying these freedom-seeking Christians, including two Texans, away from the clutching hands of the CCP.”
The Mayflower Church fled China for Jeju Island, South Korea, in October 2019 after the CCP prohibited Christians in China from preaching to minors, among other restrictions, the Mayflower Church leader, Pastor Pan Yongguang, told the DCNF in March 2022.
However, the South Korean government did not ultimately grant the members of the Mayflower Church asylum and so in August 2022 the church decided to try for asylum again in Thailand, according to ChinaAid.
Several months passed until Thai police arrested the members of the Mayflower Church in an early morning raid in Pattaya, Thailand, on March 31, after a member of the congregation allegedly revealed the location of the church to authorities following a run-in with Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS) operating in Thailand.
During a court appearance in Pattaya, Thailand, last week, authorities allegedly ruled that the church would be allowed to remain in Pattaya so long as they paid a fine, human rights activists told the DCNF at the time.
Thus, after leaving court, when Thai police began transporting members of the church away from Pattaya and north to Bangkok, church members reportedly started to fear that the Thai government actually intended to deport the Mayflower Church back to China, activists told the DCNF.
Members of Freedom Seekers International, Deana Brown and Stacy Nichols, who were also arrested while visiting with the church in Pattaya, told the DCNF that once church members realized that Thai police vehicles were headed north, they began to scream, prompting Thai police to pull over and fight with some of the congregants.
The Mayflower Church is composed of many families with young children pic.twitter.com/a6saIsnVyG
— Philip Lenczycki 蔡岳 (@LenczyckiPhilip) March 31, 2023
Once in Bangkok, Thai police placed the men of the Mayflower Church in an immigration detention facility separate from the women and children of the congregation, ChinaAid told the DCNF.
Approximately one week later, a deal was reached between the U.S. and Thai government, and the Mayflower Church was transported to the Bangkok airport on Friday, however the details of the agreement still remain unknown.
A human rights activist familiar with the situation told the DCNF that “coordination between groups was key to their resettlement.”
“Barely a week ago members of the Mayflower were still incarcerated in jail facing the imminent danger of CCP kidnapping threats,” Fu said. “Now they are safe and free.”
Fu told the DCNF that the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Office, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and Lantos Foundation for Human Rights & Justice had been instrumental in helping the Mayflower Church.
“This Good Friday is blessed and good, indeed, for the members of the Mayflower Church,” Katrina Lantos Swett, president of the Lantos Foundation, told the DCNF. “They have endured immense hardship and challenges to reach this day and have been supported and assisted by a range of dedicated individuals and groups.”
Additionally, Fu said that a number of U.S. politicians had advocated on behalf of the Mayflower Church including Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican representatives Mike McCaul, Nathaniel Moran and August Pfluger as well as several commissioners serving on the Congressional-Executive Commission on China including Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and New Jersey Republican Rep. Chris Smith.
“It is a very Good Friday indeed, and a perfect Easter gift to see these persecuted Chinese Christians arrive and be allowed to practice their faith freely in the United States,” Smith told the DCNF. “Had they been forcibly repatriated to China, they would have been jailed and severely persecuted.”
A State Department spokesperson told the DCNF that “due to privacy and security considerations, we do not have anything to share.”
The two Americans from Freedom Seekers International who were arrested with the church recently told the DCNF that their organization intends to help congregants resettle in Texas.
Jonathan Dingler, communications director at ChinaAid, told the DCNF that ChinaAid and Freedom Seekers International looked forward to the Mayflower Church starting a “new life and ministry among us.”
“I look forward to how they and their children will contribute to American society,” Dingler said.
After the Mayflower Church arrives at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport Friday evening a press conference will be held, Pastor Fu told the DCNF
“We are truly honored to be a part of this miracle, we will not rest until religious freedom is fully realized in China,” Fu said. “God bless America and the persecuted church.”
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Philip Lenczycki is a reporter at Daily Caller News Foundation.
Photo “Chinese Christians” by Philip Lenczycki.