BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) — More than 60 self-exiled members of a Chinese Christian church detained in Thailand paid fines to renew their visas but remained in police custody on Saturday, uncertain of their legal status amid fears that they will be deported against their will. to their homeland where they face possible persecution.
The 63 members of the Shenzhen Holy Reformed Church were taken to court in the resort city of Pattaya on Friday after being detained by Thai immigration authorities a day earlier. The 32 members of the group, believed to be adults, were charged with overstaying their visas, said Col. Tavi Kuthaleng, chief of Pattaya’s Nong Prue police station. Two American citizens who were with the group and were held briefly were not arrested, he said.
After being fined, the church members expected to be released so they could return to where they lived in the area, said Dina Brown, one of two American supporters accompanying them. Brown said he is working to relocate church members to Tyler, Texas, where his organization is based.
However, they were put on two buses that first took them to the immigration police office in Pattaya and then took them to Bangkok, in what a police officer told The Associated Press was the normal course of their case.
A police-escorted ride from Pattaya to Bangkok, which normally takes about two hours, took about five as passengers forced buses to stop on the road and get off the side of the road, saying they feared they were being taken to Bangkok International Airport. to be repatriated.
There were grounds for their skepticism. In 2015, Thailand deported 109 members of the Muslim Uyghur minority to China against their will, despite fears they would face official persecution and possible torture. The United Nations refugee agency called Thailand’s actions at the time a “gross violation of international law,” and the United States also condemned the deportations.
Only after receiving reassurances by phone did the Chinese church members continue on their way, arriving early Saturday morning at the Police Club in northern Bangkok, which has room for a large number of detainees. The main immigration detention center in central Bangkok, where some detainees have been held 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 reach the US, but the current status of their applications is unclear. Most of the church members are young, married, middle-class couples, with children making up about half of the group.
They fled China in 2019, claiming persecution by government security forces, initially settling on the South Korean island of Jeju. They left South Korea for Thailand after meetings with local and US officials made it clear that their prospects for asylum there were dim.
Human Rights Watch issued a statement on Saturday urging the Thai government not to return the group.
“Thai authorities must recognize the serious dangers facing Christians in China and under no circumstances force them to return,” said Elaine Pearson, the New York-based organization’s Asia director.
“If Thailand decides that the 63 Christian Chinese cannot stay, they should be allowed to seek protection in another country,” Pearson said. “Rights-respecting governments must take urgent action to signal their willingness to accept these at-risk asylum seekers.”
Brown, executive director of 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 discussed extending their visas, they were told . a new requirement that any Chinese citizen renewing a visa in Thailand must first report to the Chinese Embassy. Their visas expired a few months ago.
“When they told us that, we knew nobody could get their visas,” Brown said. “There was no way because as soon as they entered the Chinese embassy, they were gone, we would never see them again. They’ve been in hiding ever since.”
The Chinese embassy’s press office in Bangkok did not return a phone call, and the embassy did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
The US Embassy said it had no immediate comment on the incident.
Upon their arrival in Thailand in 2022, church members told reporters that they were harassed, harassed and received threatening calls and messages even while they were in South Korea. They said relatives in China were summoned, interrogated and intimidated.
At the time, China’s foreign ministry said the matter was “not a diplomatic matter” and declined to comment further.
Christians in China are legally allowed to worship only in churches affiliated with religious groups controlled by the Communist Party, but for decades authorities have largely tolerated independent, unregistered “house churches.” They have tens of millions of fans, which may be more than the representatives of the official groups.
But in recent years, house churches have come under great pressure, and many have closed. Unlike previous crackdowns, such as Beijing’s ban on Falun Gong, a spiritual movement it calls a cult, authorities have also targeted some believers who are not openly opposed to the Chinese state.
China is one of 15 countries that the Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended in its annual report last year as “countries of particular concern” for persecution of religious groups.
It says China’s ruling Communist Party’s policy requires religious groups to support its rule and its political goals, including by changing their religious teachings to conform to the party’s ideology and policies. “Both registered and unregistered religious groups and individuals who oppose the CCP are subject to harassment, detention, arrest, imprisonment and other abuses,” the commission said.
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