Members of exiled Chinese church seeking US asylum detained in Thailand

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More than 60 self-exiled members of a Chinese Christian church who were detained in Thailand paid fines for overstaying their visas but remained in police custody Saturday uncertain about their legal status amid fears they would be deported against their will to their home country, where they face possible persecution.

The 63 members of the Shenzhen Holy Reformed Church were taken to court Friday in the resort city of Pattaya after being detained a day earlier by Thai immigration authorities.

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The 32 members of the group considered to be adults were charged with overstaying their visas, said Col. Tawee Kutthalaeng, chief of the Pattaya-area Nong Prue police station. Two American citizens who were with the group and briefly held had not been placed under arrest, he said.

After being fined, the church members had expected to be released to be able to return to where they had been staying in the area, said Deana Brown, one of two American supporters who accompanied them. Brown said she has been working to resettle the church members in Tyler, Texas, where her organization is based.

However, they were put on two buses which first took them to the Pattaya office of the immigration police and then drove them to Bangkok for what a police officer told The Associated Press was normal processing of their case.

The drive under police escort from Pattaya to Bangkok, which would normally take about two hours, instead took closer to five because the passengers forced the buses to stop en route and disembarked by the roadside, saying they feared they were being driven to Bangkok's international airport to be repatriated.

There were grounds for their skepticism. In 2015, Thailand sent 109 members of the Muslim Uyghur minority back to China against their will despite fears they would face official persecution and possible torture. The UN refugee agency at the time called Thailand’s action “a flagrant violation of international law,” and the United States also condemned the deportations.

Only after receiving reassurances by phone did the Chinese church members continue their journey, arriving early Saturday morning at a police facility known as the Police Club in northern Bangkok that has space for large numbers of detainees. The main Immigration Detention Center in the middle of Bangkok, where some detainees have been stuck for years, is notoriously overcrowded.

Members of the Shenzhen Holy Reformed Church, also called the Mayflower Church, came to Thailand in 2022 seeking asylum. They are trying to get to the US, but the current status of their applications is not clear. Most members of the church are young, married, middle-class couples, with their children making up about half the group.

They fled China in 2019 alleging that they were being persecuted by government security forces, initially settling on South Korea’s Jeju Island. They left South Korea for Thailand after meetings with local and US officials made it clear that prospects for refuge there were dim.

Human Rights Watch issued a statement Saturday appealing to the Thai government not to repatriate the group.

“Thai authorities need to recognize the grave dangers facing Christians back in China and under no circumstances force them to return,” said Elaine Pearson, the New York-based organization's Asia director.

"If Thailand determines that the 63 Christian Chinese cannot stay, then they should be permitted to seek protection in another country,” Pearson said. “Rights-respecting governments should urgently step up to express their willingness to receive these asylum seekers at risk.”

Brown, CEO of the Texas-based Freedom Seekers International, an organization whose mission statement says it seeks to rescue “the most severely persecuted Christians in hostile and restrictive countries,” said that when the group looked into renewing their visas, they were told of a new requirement that any Chinese citizen renewing a visa in Thailand must report to the Chinese Embassy first. Their visas expired several months ago.

“When they told us that, we knew that nobody could get their visas,” Brown said. “There was no way, because as soon as they walk into the Chinese Embassy they’re gone, we would not see them again. They’ve been hiding out since then.”

The press section at the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok did not answer its telephone and the embassy did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

The US Embassy said it had no immediate comment on the case.

Upon their 2022 arrival in Thailand, church members told reporters that they had been stalked, harassed and received threatening calls and messages even while they were in South Korea. They said relatives in China had been summoned, interrogated and intimidated.

At that time, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said the matter was “not a diplomatic question” and declined to comment further.

In China, Christians are legally allowed to worship only in churches affiliated with Communist Party-controlled religious groups, but for decades the authorities largely tolerated independent, unregistered “house churches.” They have tens of millions of worshippers, possibly outnumbering those in the official groups.

In recent years, however, house churches have come under heavy pressure, with many prominent ones shut down. Unlike previous crackdowns, such as Beijing’s ban on Falun Gong, a spiritual movement it labels a cult, the authorities have also targeted some believers not explicitly opposed to the Chinese state.

China is one of 15 nations that the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom in its annual report last year recommended be designated as “countries of particular concern” for repression of religious groups.

It said the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s policies require religious groups to support its rule and its political objectives, including by altering their religious teachings to conform to the party’s ideology and policy. “Both registered and unregistered religious groups and individuals who run afoul of the CCP face harassment, detention, arrest, imprisonment, and other abuses,” the commission said.

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