DALLAS — The family of a Chinese pastor that is imprisoned in the country has escaped to the United States and will be cared for by a local church while they wait to hear whether they will be granted asylum in the nation.
Pastor Shaojie Zhang of Nanle County Christian Church in Henan Province, China was sentenced to 12 years in prison earlier this month after he was charged with “fraud” and “gathering a crowd to disturb public order.” According to reports, since 2003, Zhang has had an ongoing dispute with Nanle County officials over land that was to belong to his government-sanctioned church.
The County began cracking down on Zhang more intensely in recent years, detaining the pastor and 23 of his members in November 2013 as Christians in the area began to rally around Zhang in support for religious freedom.
“They have sentenced an innocent person,” his attorney Zhang Xinyun told Radio Free Asia. “Not only is this a step backwards for justice in China, but it will also have a chilling effect on Protestant worshipers and the general public.”
Persecution against Zhang’s family escalated following his sentence. According to the Texas-based ChinaAid Association, “[t]he Nanle County Public Security Bureau confiscated [Zhang’s daughter’s] car, and Pastor Zhang’s elderly parents were harassed and threatened. In addition, the Nanle County government enlisted a number of officials from different government bureaus to petition the Nanle County People’s Court to add time to Zhang Shaojie’s sentence.”
In April, the pastor’s daughter, Zhang Huixin, also known as Yunyun, sought to submit a visa application to leave the country, but was reportedly thrown out of the building. She and her husband and one-year-old daughter then attempted to fly to the United States in June after obtaining papers from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, but were blocked by the Chinese government, which cited security risks.
But during this time, ChinaAid was also working with the office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to obtain permission for the family to enter America and seek asylum on the grounds of persecution. ChinaAid founder Bob Fu flew to Southeast Asia earlier this month and organized an “underground railroad” type of operation that would escort Huixin and her family to Southeast Asia until they could fly to the United States for refuge.
The family arrived in Texas on Monday, and is now being supported by the First Baptist Church of Midland.
“Our Texas and Midland community warmly welcome this suffering, persecuted family into the United States for freedom,” Fu and Pastor Randel Everett wrote in a joint statement this week. “We will continue to pray and fight for religious freedom for the faithful like Pastor Zhang Shaojie. We will not rest until all prisoners of conscience, like Pastor Zhang …, get release from China.”
Huixin also expressed her gratitude toward those who helped her family escape to the States.
“Our family and our church want to thank the U.S. government and many anonymous church leaders in different parts of the world for helping assist our family’s hard-fought freedom,” she said. “Our family comes here to raise awareness of the deteriorating situation of religious freedom in Nanle County, Henan and in China.”
Photo: ChinaAid founder Bob Fu and his wife Heidi, along with Huixin and her family