Five years ago, Chinese Pastor Pan Yongguang was having lunch with fellow Pastor Wang Yi, the pastor of Chengdu Early Rain Covenant Church, when Pastor Wang told Pan that he needed to prepare to go to prison for his faith.
Wang wasn’t being an alarmist as Wang himself was soon thereafter arrested and is now serving a nine-year prison sentence. And as predicted, police started visiting Pan, even monitoring him. So, Pan and the members of Shenzhen Holy Reformed, his church, started discussing the seemingly unthinkable question: Should they try to leave China?
The alternative was clear. If they stayed, they faced almost certain arrest and incarceration in one of China’s re-education camps. In that event, their children would grow up in the indoctrination of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Wanting their children to know Jesus and to have the freedom to worship Him, they decided to try and emigrate to a place where this would be possible.
They could not have possibly known all the difficulties that they would face in their search for religious liberty.
The church first traveled to Jeju Island, part of South Korea, where they stayed for nearly three years before being told that the government of South Korea would not shelter them. Then they went to Thailand, where they were arrested by immigration authorities earlier this year; at one point, church members were detained in the “notoriously overcrowded” Bangkok Immigration Detention Centre (IDC), with some cells bursting with as many as 40 people.
After arriving in Thailand, the 63 church members realized they were being watched and video-recorded. The refugees would get calls from family in China who were being pressured into pleading with them to come back to China. Pan believed that there was imminent danger that he or the entire church would be repatriated to China, even forcibly by Chinese agents, where they could be tortured into denying their faith or apologizing for leaving China or even killed, after which the government would claim they had committed suicide.
In response, the members of the church and Pastor Pan issued statements to let others know that if they returned to China it would be against their will and that they would never commit suicide because their lives belonged to Jesus Christ.
After work by non-profit human rights organizations ChinaAid and Freedom Seekers International, as well as the U.S. State Department’s International Religious Freedom Office, the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, and congressional offices, the members of the “Mayflower Church” were finally released to the U.S. They landed at Dallas International Airport on Good Friday.
On hearing of their arrival, Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Global Human Rights Subcommittee and Congressional-Executive Commission on China, said,
“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. Had they been forcibly repatriated to China, they would have been jailed and severely persecuted.”
Now that they are settled in Tyler, Texas, Pastor Pan and his family are overjoyed to have the freedom to worship and live out their faith. Pastor Pan recently celebrated God’s provision, noting His miraculous and quick deliverance after their arrest in Thailand.
“I was surprised when the Americans said they already bought the tickets and we are to leave right away. It was sort of impossible! I am reminded of the verse in Job that says, ‘I have heard about you but now I see you.’ When I got on the plane and leave, I felt like I am dreaming. It reminds me that God is the God who is at work and He will do what He has promised.”
Pastor Pan’s son, Paul, says what he enjoys most is being able to go to school. “This is a place where people believe in God and they have the freedom of worship and freedom of faith…I thank God for everything He has done for all of us. He has taken us out of the detention center and brought us safely here to America. And He will let us live in peace and freedom in America.”
China is one of the world’s most hostile nations towards religion. It permits state-approved religions in which the CCP controls what is said. The CCP “sinicizes” religions that it believes have too much of a Western influence, altering the religion’s teachings, including the Bible, to align with CCP views. China has also banned online Bible sales and banned all unauthorized religious content.
Those who want to follow true Christianity are monitored and often arrested. Some Christians are taken to mobile torture units where officials attempt to brainwash them.
Unfortunately, China’s war on religion does not stay inside its borders. ChinaAid’s founder Bob Fu, who also lives in Texas, has received death threats and his home was once surrounded by protestors who claimed he was a Chinese spy. Some suspect the CCP organized the protestors.
This story shows the blessing of religious liberty. Most nations throughout time have not allowed the freedom for people to live out their beliefs without persecution, yet the United States guarantees that privilege for every citizen. From the pilgrims who came to the United States on the Mayflower to the Mayflower Church, America is a land of freedom for those who want to obey the doctrines of their faith. That is why it is critical that we guard that liberty, which is under attack from those who would see America changed into a nation similar to China, where those with the “wrong” beliefs are persecuted and forced into re-education.
In the early days of the Church, believers did not have the freedom to serve God without being threatened with violence or imprisonment. At one point, the Apostle Paul was lowered in a basket over the city wall by other Christians in order to keep him from the ruler who wanted to hurt him (2 Corinthians 11:32-33).
Metaphorically speaking the Constitution’s guarantee of religious liberty is the basket and Americans who defend religious liberty or who help religious asylum seekers are like those holding the rope. Many are depending on America to uphold the promise of religious freedom. As Americans and Christians, we should vote only for those who will defend religious freedom — and we must never, ever take for granted our own right to read the Bible, share the Gospel, gather together with other believers, and worship our Savior.
Ready to dive deeper into the intersection of faith and policy? Head over to our Theology of Politics series page where we’ve published several long-form pieces that will help Christians navigate where their faith should direct them on political issues.