UK & World News

  • 16 July 2014, 12:40

Jailed Chinese Pastor's Family Flee To Texas

Three members of a jailed Christian pastor's family have made an extraordinary escape from China to the United States with the help of an underground network of activists.

Zhang Shaojie's daughter, son-in-law and one-year-old granddaughter arrived in Dallas, Texas, on Monday after a journey which took them through five countries.

Pastor Zhang, who was the leader of Nanle County Church in central China's Henan Province, was detained in November along with 23 of his parishioners, in a case which had pitted a Christian community against the local government in a dispute over freedom to worship and the right to own land.

Last week, Pastor Zhang was sentenced at a local court to 12 years in jail for "gathering crowds to disturb public order" and "fraud" after a secret detention spanning seven months.

But his family, who have spent much of the past seven months in hiding, fearing for their lives, have been smuggled out of China by Christian activists in Texas and with the apparent help of the US government.

In December, Sky News met the pastor's granddaughter and daughter at a secret location near the church where they worshipped. Zhang Huixin, also known as Yunyun, and her daughter Jessie, were hiding in a hotel room and were frightened.

"My father went to work (in the church) as usual, it was a Saturday," she said at the time.

"Suddenly a dozen police came, they forcefully took my father away."

She described how they tied up her father and took him away with the other parishioners.

The hostility and danger the Christians faced was clear, even to us as we investigated the case the following day. A group of local people believed to have been hired by the government attacked the Sky News crew and lawyers representing the Christians.

Sky News was removed by force the town and told not to return.

But, secretly, thousands of miles away in Texas, members of an activist group called China Aid were planning to help the family escape.

An asylum case was made to the US Embassy in Beijing. The activists claimed that the Zhang family's lives were in danger if they remained in China.

In what appear to be unusual circumstances, the US Embassy granted the family papers to allow them into America. Sky News understands they were given Advanced Parole papers, giving them entry access and a year to make a claim for asylum.

In early June, with their papers granted, the family made the six-hour journey to Beijing Airport. They tried to board a plane to the US, but were prevented from flying by Chinese authorities. They were detained and then returned to Nanle.

Remarkably though, they evaded detection from the Chinese authorities a second time and travelled south over land in a second bid to escape. With the help of a network of Christian activists within China they travelled to the southern border with Vietnam and Laos.

Over a month, they made it across porous borders of three countries and made it to Bangkok by the weekend, when they flew to Texas.

"Our family and our church want to thank the US government and many anonymous church leaders in different parts of the world for helping assist our family's hard-fought freedom," Yunyun said on her arrival in Texas.

"Our family comes here to raise awareness of the deteriorating situation of religious freedom in Nanle County, Henan and in China."

"Many anonymous heroes helped them along the way," said Bob Fu, who runs the China Aid activist organisation.

"Our Texas and Midland community warmly welcome this suffering, persecuted family into the United States for freedom."

The family will lodge an official claim for asylum. It will be considered and a decision made within 12 months.

Sky News approached the US embassy in Beijing, but a spokesman refused to comment on the case.

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