BANGKOK (AP) — More than 60 asylum-seeking members of a Chinese Christian church who were detained last week in Thailand are en route to the United States, a religious freedom advocate who has been aiding them said Friday.
A colonel in Thailand’s police immigration division confirmed that the group left Thailand on Thursday night. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not his agency’s spokesperson.
Thai police on Wednesday said the 63 members of the Shenzhen Holy Reformed Church, also known as the Mayflower Church, would be deported within a week, likely to a third country. The U.S. Embassy has declined comment on the fate of the group but was involved along with representatives of the U.N. Refugee Agency in talks with Thai officials about the matter.
The church members, who have been in Thailand since last September, were arrested last week in the seaside city of Pattaya for overstaying their visas, fined, and then taken to Bangkok, where they were detained in immigration facilities.
Bob Fu, president of ChinaAid, a Texas-based Christian human rights organization, said the group was heading to the United States and is expected to arrive in Dallas, Texas, on Friday evening.
“ChinaAid welcomes the landing of the persecuted Chinese ‘Mayflower Church’ to freedom in America and welcome to Texas,” Fu said in a text message which also thanked U.S. and Thai officials and activists.
“We will not rest until religious freedom is fully realized in China,” he said.
Christian church organizations have been working to resettle them in Texas, lobbying for their admittance to the U.S. and offering to host them.
The church members have said they faced unbearable harassment in China.
Christians in China 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.
In recent years, however, 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.
Prior to their arrival in Thailand, the Mayflower Church members fled to South Korea’s Jeju island in October 2019 and stayed there for nearly three years. They decided to leave after it became clear that prospects for refuge there were dim.