Christian Fugitives Face Martyrdom in Communist China
“Jail awaits me,” the pastor of a fugitive Chinese church wrote over an encrypted messaging service. “They’ve accused me of subversion of state power.”
Although the 60 religious refugees of the Shenzhen Holy Reformed Church found sanctuary on South Korea’s Jeju Island in 2019, now the renegade congregation faces imminent deportation back to Communist China after repeated asylum requests have been denied by the left-wing government of South Korea.
If returned to China, the church fears imprisonment, or worse, at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The ‘Mayflower Church’
The church’s flight from persecution in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has drawn comparisons with 17th century Puritans fleeing England for the continent that would become the U.S.
For this reason, a spokesman for China Aid, Jonathan Dingler, told the Daily Caller News Foundation the church has been dubbed the “Mayflower Church.”
Behind the scenes, China Aid, a Christian nonprofit headed by Pastor Bob Fu, has been working to save the church from deportation back to Communist China, just as the organization helped rescue human rights attorney Chen Guangcheng in 2012, Judge Li Jianfeng in 2015 and University of Washington student Vera Zhou in 2019.
“In the last 40 years, this is the largest group of people fleeing China at once,” Dingler said. “These Christians desire to have religious freedom so badly they are willing to risk everything and that’s why we nicknamed them the ‘Mayflower Church.’”
Dingler explained that the exodus of the Mayflower Church was led by Yongguang Pan, a Chinese pastor ordained at the Philadelphia Bible Reformed Church.
The fugitive pastor communicated with the DCNF over an encrypted platform over several weeks and granted permission to translate portions of that conversation into English for this story.
“Our theology of faith is the same as the Puritans of the Mayflower,” Pastor Pan told the DCNF. “We have inherited the spirit of the Mayflower. We, like them, suffered persecution for our faith and bravely left our country in search of freedom of religion.”
China’s Underground Churches
The Mayflower Church is one of Communist China’s so-called “house churches.”
“A ‘house church’ is one that adheres to the right to freedom of religion,” Pastor Pan explained. “It does not compromise with the atheism of the CCP and thus worships secretly within family homes.”
“Neither of my parents were Christian,” Pastor Pan said of his religious upbringing. “But, when my father died in a car accident in 2000, a group of Christians shared the gospel with us at the hospital.”
Pastor Pan was baptized on Easter 2003 and founded his own church in June 2012.
Pastor Pan labels the Mayflower Church as belonging to “the Westminster Confession,” which Dingler characterizes as anything but controversial, “Pastor Pan is rooted in the Gospel. He believes in the hope of the cross and this is what gives him the joy to continue this journey which has been so painful for the last two years.”
However, in the eyes of the CCP, house churches subvert state power.
“The Mayflower Church is illegal,” Pastor Pan acknowledged. “Since the PRC’s establishment in 1949 it has not given churches the status of a legal social organization.”
Dingler told the DCNF that it was a CCP crackdown on Christians — and Pastor Pan specifically — which drove the Mayflower Church to flee the PRC.
Dingler explained how in December 2018, Pastor Pan signed a letter authored by another house church pastor, Wang Yi, which provoked the wrath of the CCP.
“Wang Yi released a joint statement along with around 439 other pastors essentially calling for President Xi Jinping to repent and to accept Christ into his heart,” said Dingler. “All the pastors signed with their real names, open to the consequences that came with it.”
Dingler said along with “over 100 congregants” Pastor Wang “was arrested during a massive crackdown on December 9, 2018” and “was charged with inciting subversion of state power and illegal business operations and sentenced to nine years imprisonment.”
“All of the pastors that were associated with that joint statement have been heavily persecuted since,” said Dingler. “Pastor Pan was friends with Pastor Wang Yi and also signed the statement and that incident started the process in which Shenzhen Holy Reformed began facing heavy persecution.”
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Asked about his relationship with Pastor Wang, Pan said, “We have been good friends for many years, and I completely agree with his declaration, which is also mine.”
While his friendship with Pastor Wang and the joint letter entitled “My Declaration of Faithful Disobedience” put the Mayflower Church on a collision course with the CCP, Pastor Pan said the reason for his congregation’s departure from the PRC was rooted in the church’s children.
“I left China mainly because of the persecution of my religious beliefs,” said Pastor Pan. “China violates the U.N. Human Rights Convention and prohibits preaching to minors and thus my teaching of the Bible to my children is prohibited by the government.”
Referencing PRC government legislation, which the U.S. Commission On International Religious Freedom states results in “egregious religious freedom violations,” Pastor Pan told the DCNF, “Every few years the ‘Regulations on the Administration of Religion’ is revised for the sake of control. Specifically, contact with foreign religions is not allowed; preaching is not allowed without the permission of the state; preaching is not allowed to minors; preaching is not allowed outside prescribed religious locations; the selling and publishing of religious products such as Bibles is not allowed; and preaching is forbidden on the Internet.”
Pastor Pan said that for this reason, after discussing the church’s plight with his congregation, a vote was taken, and, in October 2019, a majority of church members fled Communist China for Jeju Island, South Korea, where a travel visa would not be required for Chinese citizens.
Enemies of the State
Dingler explained how the Mayflower Church’s plight is indicative of how the CCP has attacked Christianity in China more generally, “Xi has overseen a campaign to remove thousands of church crosses over the last five years and has made it illegal for anyone under 18 years old to receive any sort of religious education. Children can’t go to Sunday school. Students can’t go to churches — even the state-sanctioned churches.”
“There’s pretty clear evidence given the state sanctions, churches are not allowed to publicly invite new congregants into the church,” Dingler said. “Xi has also implemented religious information measures making it illegal for anyone to publish religious content online without a religious information license, a license only given to members of that state-sanctioned clergy, such as the Three Self Patriotic Movement and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.”
Asked about the difference between his church and the PRC’s state-sanctioned churches, Pastor Pan said, “They have nothing in common. The Mayflower Church is Protestant, while both the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and Three Self Patriotic Movement are atheist organs of the Communist Party.”
“The CCP is an atheist, materialist party. It views Christian belief as ignorant, backward, and superstitious — something which will eventually perish,” said Pastor Pan.
Imprisonment, Torture and Martyrdom
Dingler detailed several high-profile examples of the CCP persecuting Christians, including that of Judge Li Jianfeng, whom China Aid helped rescue in 2015.
A document authored by Li was shared with the DCNF, describing his arrest and sentencing to 16 years imprisonment for “resisting tyranny” and “helping socially disadvantaged group,” such as Christians and “victims of judicial corruption.”
The document detailed how Li was forced to labor for 16 hours a day, endured “11 days of sleep deprivation,” routinely suffered electrocution by “600,000 volt” police batons, and was deliberately fed “poisonous food.”
While in prison Li claims to have witnessed the murder of a fellow Christian named “Wong Chuan Chan,” who was beaten to death by “eight policemen” for purportedly hiding a Bible.
“Persecution has always been present in Communist China, but it has increased rapidly as we’ve seen blatant restrictions, surveillance, and harassment, all in the name of trying to reduce Christianity to a non-existent faction of Chinese society,” said Dingler.
Although Mayflower Church congregants have repeatedly applied for asylum in South Korea, to date all attempts have been rejected. At the end of April, the South Korean government may designate the group “illegal aliens,” who thus face deportation back to the PRC.
“If deported back to China, there is a very real possibility Pastor Pan will be arrested and tortured along with many in the families who fled with him,” Dingler told the DCNF.
Morse Tan, the former ambassador-at-large for the U.S. State Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice and current dean of Liberty University’s school of law, discussed South Korea’s internal political circumstances and the relationship between the Democratic Party of Korea and the CCP with the DCNF.
“I am very aware of all sorts of malign activity that the CCP engages in against its own people, not to mention worldwide. They have been the largest destroyer of Christian churches in the world,” said Tan. “In China alone, the CCP has destroyed most of the Christian churches that have been destroyed worldwide.”
Discussing the administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Tan said, “I’ve heard reports of Christian leaders and Christian churches that are seeking to do good and constructive things with regards to North Korea being threatened by the current Moon administration.”
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Tan also addressed the practical implications of the Biden administration failing to install an American ambassador in South Korea, a situation stemming from Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s objections to confirming President Joe Biden’s nominees on the grounds Biden has refused to sanction the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.
Asked how Biden’s failure to install an American ambassador in South Korea may have impacted the Mayflower Church, Tan said, “All sorts of different things run through an embassy and for those not to be in place it’s a hole that makes its presence felt through its absence, if you will.”
Tan pointed to House bill 3446, a bill sold as working to formally end the Korean War, as an example demonstrating how the lack of an American ambassador to South Korea has caused damage.
“President Moon has been falsely asserting that the U.S. is on board with his legislation to unilaterally declare a false peace with respect to North Korea, when North Korea has not given any indication of changing its hostile intentions or deviating from its ultimate goal of taking over the peninsula by force,” Tan said. “And yet, because there’s no ambassador to disavow this, this is another example where North Korean agents and operatives are trying to get various people in Congress to move forward with this.”
Worse still, Tan said the Moon administration was “leaning more and more” towards aligning with the CCP.
“I think [the Moon administration has] greater ideological alignment with China than with the United States,” Tan said. “There is a sort of ethnonationalism in China, as well as in Korea — and in Korea, it’s most particularly in regards to being Korean, but I think that extends more broadly into being Asian.”
Yet, Tan says there is a ray of hope for South Korea and the Mayflower Church, as the country will hold a presidential election March 9 and Moon is unable to run for reelection.
“Moon has taken South Korea in a socialist direction that the current leftist candidate would want to go even further with towards communism,” Tan noted, suggesting such an election result would not bode well for the Mayflower Church’s asylum chances.
In face of the odds, Pastor Pan expects to be incarcerated should he be deported back to Communist China. “I’m the first pastor to lead a church out of China in 49 years.”
In his absence, Pastor Pan says the CCP has even targeted the family members and congregants of the Mayflower Church remaining in China, “They’re not safe, some parishioners have been threatened and interrogated. They threaten our families back home in even more unscrupulous ways.”
“The Communist Party is the enemy of all cultures and morals,” said Pastor Pan. “This has been proven by history for over one hundred years and is the consensus of mankind. Materialism, evolutionary law of the jungle, money worship, widespread corruption, violent human rights disasters, and worse.”
In the end, he said his many trials and tribulations had only reinforced his faith in God, and, true to form, the pastor referred the DCNF to the Bible.
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore, put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.”
“Ephesians, chapter six,” Pastor Pan noted, “to face spiritual warfare.”
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