(Susan Crabtree, RealClearWire) Influential members of Congress and top human rights advocates in Washington are urging the Biden administration to take immediate action to ensure the safety of a group of Chinese Christian dissidents and two Americans detained by Thai authorities Thursday.
The group of refugees, including 35 children and 28 adults, fled China in 2019 to escape persecution. They initially sought refuge in South Korea and then Thailand while seeking emergency asylum in the United States. But the U.S. State Department and Department of Homeland Security have declined to grant the church members emergency asylum, as it has done for many others, including tens of thousands of Ukrainians fleeing their war-ravaged countries, and the first group of Afghans airlifted into the United States amid the chaotic U.S. evacuation in August 2021.
For months, human rights and religious freedom advocates have warned the State Department that Thai authorities have a history of working with the Chinese government to draw Chinese nationals out of hiding, arrest them, and send them back to their homeland, where they face imprisonment, torture, or worse.
Now the very scenario they warned about has taken place: On Thursday, Thai police raided the residence where the 63 refugees were staying and two Americans were visiting, arrested the group, fingerprinted them, and detained them in a holding facility.
The Chinese nationals face a deportation hearing Friday and could be sent back to China in a matter of days. Two American women from Tyler, Texas, Deana Brown and Stacy Nichols, are also being held, although it’s unclear whether they face charges. Brown is the founder and CEO of Freedom Seekers International, a nonprofit that helps Christians persecuted overseas to resettle in the United States.
Rep. Mike McCaul, a Texas Republican who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, urged swift action by the Biden administration to help protect the group of Christian dissidents. The group of 63 are members of the Shenzhen Holy Reform Church, a Protestant Christian denomination founded in 2012 on the Chinese mainland bordering Hong Kong.
For several years, the Shenzhen Holy Reform Church existed relatively peacefully but faced increasing surveillance and intimidation tactics under President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on all religious organizations that don’t agree to state church registrations and the government’s heavy-handed rules. The church’s pastor, Pan Yongguang, was ordained by the Philadelphia Bible Reformed Church of the Presbyterian Church in America, the second-largest Presbyterian denomination in the U.S.
Most of the church members decided to flee China after state police quashed widespread protests in nearby Hong Kong amid Beijing’s tighter city control. The exiled Chinese Christian group is referred to by some advocates as the “Mayflower Church,” inspired by the Pilgrims who left their homeland for the New World four centuries ago.
“Religious freedom, and its protection abroad, are core tenets of America’s constitutional tradition,” McCaul told RealClearPolitics in a statement. “I strongly urge the administration to ensure the safety of those connected to the Mayflower Church who are threatened by the [Chinese Communist Party].”
A spokesman for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said the senator has been closely tracking the crisis throughout the day. “It would be catastrophic and indefensible for Thai authorities to deliver these dissidents to the Chinese Communist Party,” the spokesman said. “They should be released immediately.”
The bipartisan U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom on Thursday expressed grave concern over the developing crisis and pressed the State Department to move quickly to help safeguard the group.