PATTAYA, Thailand (AP) — More than 60 self-exiled members of a Chinese Christian church who were briefly detained in Thailand were released Friday after paying fines, supporters said, allaying fears that they were about to be returned to their home country, where they face possible persecution.
Deana Brown, one of two American supporters who accompanied the church members, said a court in the coastal city of Pattaya where the 63 members of the Shenzhen Holy Reformed Church had been taken released them late Friday afternoon. She said they were headed to the local police station to retrieve their passports, which were seized when they were detained Thursday.
After that they were expected to return to where they have been staying, she said. No official confirmation of the court’s action was immediately available.
Thirty-two adult Chinese nationals were charged with overstaying their visas, Col. Tawee Kutthalaeng, chief of the Pattaya-area Nong Prue police station, said earlier. Their children were not charged, and the two American citizens with them were not placed under arrest, he said.
Members of the Shenzhen Holy Reformed Church, also called the Mayflower Church, came to Thailand in 2022 seeking asylum. The current status of their request was not immediately clear.
They fled China in 2019 alleging that their members 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 U.S. officials made it clear that prospects for refuge there were dim.
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 had been told that there was a new requirement that any Chinese citizen renewing a visa in Thailand must report to the Chinese Embassy first. The visas expired several months ago.
“When they told us that, we knew that nobody could get their visas,” said Brown, who was allowed to keep her phone when she also was briefly in police custody.
“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 said she is working to resettle the church members in Tyler, Texas, where her organization is based, but that they had run into problems with their visas in Thailand. She said she assumed that she and the other American, a nurse, had been held by police because they were there at the time the church members were taken into custody.
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 U.S. 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.
However, in recent years, 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.
Most members of the Shenzhen Holy Reformed Church are young, married middle-class couples, with their children making up about half the group.
Bob Fu, founder of ChinaAid, another Texas Christian group helping the church, told the AP that American lawmakers were pressing the U.S. State Department to get involved.
In a statement on his website, Fu said that time was of the essence.
“Before the Chinese government demands repatriation, the international community can help prevent this tragedy from happening,” he said.
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 “has long repressed religious freedom, and in recent years it has become increasingly hostile toward religion, implementing campaigns to ‘sinicize’ Islam, Tibetan Buddhism, and Christianity to rid them of alleged ‘foreign’ influences. These policies require religious groups to support CCP rule and its political objectives, including by altering their religious teachings to conform to CCP 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.”
Rising reported from Bangkok. Associated Press journalist Dake Kang in Bo’ao, China, contributed to this report.