BANGKOK, THAILAND – Three years ago, 62 members of the China's Shenzhen Reformed Holy Church, also known as the Mayflower Church, fled to South Korea to escape persecution from the Communist government. They requested political asylum in South Korea, but were denied.
The church is now in Thailand, where members hope to gain refugee status, and eventually resettle in the United States. Until then, they face many challenges, including possible arrest by Thailand immigration police and being sent back to China.
14-year-old Paul Pan is the son of Mayflower Church's leader, Pastor Yongguang Pan. He can still vividly remember how Chinese police barged into their house church and harassed his mother when he was only six.
"They took a lot of brothers – took them away. I remember my mom, three policemen caught her and try to throw her away. She try to stop them. They noticed she didn't want to move so they catch her feet and carry her away," Paul told CBN News.
Paul says he was not afraid then because he knew his parents would be released in a few hours. As he grew older, however, fear began to creep in.
"I have that fear that someday they might be taken away and me and my sister will go to another family's house," he said.
Paul is now more concerned about his father, Pastor Youngguang Pan. Pastor Pan led the Shenzhen congregation out of China in 2019, taking them to South Korea in pursuit of religious freedom.
They left China because of increasing threats against the church by the communist government. In 2018, the communist government imposed revised regulations that included limiting the appointed place of worship, who could serve as leader, and where Christians could legally evangelize.
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Pastor Pan told CBN News, "Government authorities came and threatened my landlord. They ordered him not to extend our lease and forced us to leave. They posted police right outside our residence and I was being followed. Police stopped us in the middle of worship and ordered us to stop meeting."
Guangbo You, an elder of the church, said, "The police took me, Pastor Pan and a brother in Christ whom the police beat up. Police persecution was becoming more serious and we felt the space where we can live was becoming smaller. Our only hope is that our family can live in a place where we can worship God and teach this to our children. For them to freely worship God their whole life."
After two and a half years, however, the South Korean government denied the Mayflower families' request for asylum. They then fled to Thailand, where they are seeking refugee status in order apply for political asylum in the U.S.
The Mayflower Church believes that they are like the Israelites in Exodus who God brought out of Egypt. Most Christian churches in the Western world support this idea, but the Christian churches inside China think otherwise.
Pastor Tim Conkling of China Ministries International explained the contradictory views.
"The Chinese house church Christians have a self-identity of being a patriotic martyr. They are willing to suffer and be martyred for their faith. So when a group decides to leave persecution and martyrdom, that creates some tension in what has become a cultural and religious identity of the entire house church Protestant movement in China.
Conkling pointed out, however, that if you study the book of Acts in the Bible, the Apostle Paul fled persecution as well.
"American Christians who have a tradition and history of religious freedom and an understanding of the principles upon which their country was founded. They understand why the Mayflower pilgrims left and came to the United States and they will be in support of people who would leave their country because of religious persecution to try and find a country where they can experience religious freedom," he said.
While church members still face restrictions and potential deportation, they enjoy the freedom they have to worship.
"I struggle with many uncertainties in my heart like most of my congregation. But we find strength every time we experience how God has been faithfully providing for our daily needs and how He is constantly protecting us from the evil men who want to harm us," Pastor Pan said.
"Whether we go live in the US or are taken back to China, we will regard this experience as listening to God's call and continuing to be a vibrant testimony of His goodness and faithfulness."