More than 60 self-exiled members of a Chinese Christian church who were detained in Thailand paid fines Friday for overstaying their visas, but remained uncertain about their legal status amid fears they would be deported against their will 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 Pattaya city where the 63 members of the Shenzhen Holy Reformed Church were taken released them late Friday afternoon. She said they planned to head to a local police station to retrieve their passports, which were seized when they were detained Thursday.
According to Brown, who did not attend the court session and said her information was based on what a translator told the group, the court said the church members were free and could return to where they have been staying nearby.
However, an Immigration Police inspector who declined to give his name told The Associated Press that the group would be driven to Bangkok to be processed for violating immigration law, which he said was normal procedure. The group was placed in two buses that took them to the local police immigration office and then headed toward Bangkok.
A police officer told one of the bus drivers that they were being sent to a police facility in northern Bangkok that has space for large numbers of detainees. The main Immigration Detention Center in the middle of Bangkok is notoriously overcrowded.
Thirty-two adult members of the group 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 they 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 were 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,” Brown said. “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 has been 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 with the church members when they 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.
In 2015, Thailand sent 109 members of the Muslim Uyghur minority back to China against their will despite fears they would face official persecution and possible torture. The U.N. refugee agency at the time called Thailand’s action “a flagrant violation of international law, ” and the United States also condemned the deportations.
China is one of 15 nations that the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended in its annual report last year be designated as “countries of particular concern” for repression of religious groups.
It said the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s policies require religious groups to support its rule and its political objectives, including by altering their religious teachings to conform to the party’s 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,” it said.
Rising reported from Bangkok. Associated Press journalist Dake Kang in Bo’ao, China, contributed to this report.
Tian Macleod Ji And David Rising, The Associated Press