Arielle Del Turco is Assistant Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council. This article appeared in The Washington Examiner on June 22, 2021.
In 2019, a small Chinese house church's congregation fled together to South Korea in search of relief from the persecution they had endured at the hands of the Chinese government. Sadly, the South Korean government has rejected the group’s asylum bids, and the once-successful Chinese Christians are relegated to working on farms as they appeal the decisions.
Faced with poor prospects in South Korea, this congregation now hopes to resettle in America. In light of our nation’s history as a haven for the religiously persecuted, American leaders should do everything they can to bring this persecuted church to the United States.
Founded in 2012, Shenzhen Holy Reformed Church operated outside the purview of the Chinese Communist Party for years and was thereby viewed by authorities as illegal. Although he was occasionally questioned by the police, things were tolerable for Pastor Pan Yongguang until China tightened religious regulations in 2018. It was then that authorities became intent on shutting the church down if it did not conform to and teach socialist ideology. Officials told Pan that he should “inculcate our beliefs, teach the children to listen to the party and follow the party.”
Feeling heightened pressure from the government, the Shenzhen congregation discussed leaving China as a group, and the majority voted in favor. The families packed lightly and posed as tourists traveling to Jeju, a popular vacation spot for Korean and Chinese travelers. Yet, South Korea accepts very few refugees each year. Pastor Pan now hopes the church can resettle in the U.S. If they are not granted refugee status and are pressured to return to China, they are likely to have a target on their backs.
The unusual situation of an entire church fleeing their home country has inspired activists to nickname the Shenzhen congregation the “Mayflower Church.” This is in reference to the English congregation that crossed the Atlantic on the Mayflower four hundred years ago in search of a new life in the Americas. That group eventually become known as the “pilgrims” of Plymouth Plantation.
There is something deeply American about this Chinese congregation’s journey and their hope to live free from persecution. According to the Wall Street Journal, when Pastor Pan met with an American diplomat in South Korea to discuss their situation, he handed the diplomat a Chinese copy of William Bradford’s “Of Plymouth Plantation.”
The Mayflower Church faces scrutiny from Chinese authorities. They are likely to endure interrogations and punishments if they are forced to return to China. The few church members who were turned away from entering Jeju by South Korean immigration officials reportedly faced government retribution upon their return—their homes were raided and their movements were restricted. No person should have to endure that type of abuse for being affiliated with a house church and for wanting to live in a country where religious freedom is protected.
The Mayflower Church is now looking to the U.S. for help. Their plea is one that American leaders should take seriously.
Upon taking office, President Biden promised to reassert America’s commitment to refugees and raise the refugee admissions ceiling. The Mayflower Church’s plight is an opportunity to follow through on this promise and offer these persecuted Chinese believers safety and new opportunities. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has publicly drawn attention to the Chinese government’s repression of religious freedom. Blinken should prioritize sparing this church from that repression. The White House should work closely with the U.S. State Department to bring them to the United States.
Those who want to appease the Chinese government might resist such a plan. However, this is an important and symbolic case. Accepting the Mayflower Church as refugees would send the message that the United States recognizes the Chinese government’s oppression of believers to be at such an unacceptable level that we would never want to send vulnerable people of faith back under Chinese authority. Our acceptance of these persecuted Christians would be an embarrassment for Chinese leaders, and they should rightfully be ashamed of how poorly they treat their own people.
The South Korean government is reluctant to give Pastor Pan and his congregation a chance, but the United States should. America was founded in part by people like the members of the Shenzhen Holy Reformed Church. The pilgrims were also a religious community longing to live according to their convictions, free from government harassment. As we see history repeat itself in the form of a small Chinese church, Americans should open our doors and offer them the freedom and opportunities this land has offered us. President Biden must do everything in his power to bring the Mayflower Church to the U.S.