A police official says they may not be deported to their home country.
By Nontarat Phaicharoen for BenarNews
March 31, 2023
Members of China’s Shenzhen Holy Reformed Church, also known as the Mayflower Church, leave from the Nong Prue police station on their way to a court in Pattaya, Thailand, March 31, 2023.
A Thai court on Friday began the trial of 28 Chinese Christians charged with overstaying their visa, and who were in the country seeking protection from the United Nations refugee agency claiming religious persecution back home, police said.
The Associated Press news agency reported that the Chinese were fined and released on Friday. The Chinese exiles belong to the Shenzhen Holy Reformed Church, also known as the Mayflower Church.
One police official said the group of 63 Christians including 35 children, who had been arrested Thursday afternoon, would likely not be deported back to China.
“No, there won’t be that thing. It’s not going to happen,” Col. Tawee Kutthalaeng, chief of the Nong Prue police station, told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated news service.
“We did not charge all of them because there were children as well. They were charged with overstaying their visas, staying too long and not renewing their visas.”
Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, but the non-refoulement principle under international human rights law states that people cannot be sent back to a country where they are likely to be persecuted, tortured, mistreated or have their human rights violated.
The group of 63 Chinese had fled their homeland in 2019, making their way first to South Korea’s Jeju Island, before landing in Thailand last year, according to RFA's Mandarin Service.
Nury Turkel, chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), expressed concern about the Chinese exiles in Thailand.
“Members of the Mayflower Church are at imminent risk of being deported to China, where they will face severe consequences, including imprisonment and torture,” he said in a tweet on Thursday.
According to an American NGO, Freedom House, Christianity has expanded rapidly in China since 1980, but is strictly controlled by the state.
“The Chinese authorities seek to monitor and control Christians by encouraging them – sometimes forcefully – to join state-sanctioned churches that are affiliated with ‘patriotic’ associations and led by politically vetted clergy,” says a 2017 Freedom House report.
“Religious leaders and congregants who refuse to register for theological or practical reasons risk having their place of worship shuttered and face detention, beatings, dismissal from employment, or imprisonment.”
Certain religions and religious groups, including Christian “house churches” that operate independently from state-sanctioned ones, are persecuted harshly, according to Freedom House’s 2023 Freedom in the World report.
In October, the pastor associated with the Mayflower Church, Pan Yongguang, who is also in Thailand, told RFA that he was afraid of being caught in an immigration prison and eventually deported to China.
“I can't fall into their hands. If they find me and put me in an immigration prison, they will take me back to China,” he had said.
“I will not voluntarily return to mainland China, and I will not choose to commit suicide.”
‘China’s threats have never stopped’
Meanwhile, Deana Brown, an American who was also arrested briefly with the group according to the Associated Press, said Friday that renewing visas for the Chinese nationals was not easy.
She told AP that when the Chinese exiles had sought to renew their Thai visas, they had been told they had to first report to their country’s embassy.
“We knew [then] that nobody could get their visas,” Brown told AP.
“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.”
Brown is the founder of a Texas-based organization called Freedom Seekers International, which says on its website that it “exists to rescue ‘last resort’ and the most severely persecuted Christians in hostile and restrictive countries.”
The organization says it “is taking the lead role in establishing a new life for them in Tyler, Texas.”
Fu Xiqiu, chairman of the China Aid Association, a Christian NGO headquartered in the United States, told RFA on Thursday that one of the church members had been coerced into informing the Thai authorities where they were staying. That is what prompted the immigration raid and arrest, Fu alleged.
“Based on the way other missing persons were treated in the past, this must be the CCP’s mafia behind the scenes,” he said, referring to the Chinese Communist Party.
“We call on the international community to lend a helping hand urgently to stop the atrocities. We can imagine that if these adults and children return to China, they will definitely be imprisoned and persecuted.”
Fu further alleged that threats from Chinese authorities have continued despite the church members being in exile.
“China’s threats have never stopped, including family members being kidnapped, threatened, and interrogated,” Fu claimed.
“Even in Jeju Island, they were threatened by text messages and phone calls from the CCP Consulate in Jeju Island, saying that they were traitorous, treasonous, and endangering national security.”
BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated news service.