As a Christian, I believe it is my duty to pray for my brothers and sisters in bonds, whether they be the physical restraints that keep believers imprisoned or the immense pressure of authoritarian states so threatened by their citizens’ allegiance to Christ that they micromanage their every move.
In communist China, followers of Christ have been subject to both kinds of earthly bondage for decades, despite the regime’s insistence that the atheistic state protects religious freedom.
The Chinese Communist Party, in an attempt to outwardly avoid the “mistakes” made by its Soviet counterparts in the 20th century, does grant religious freedom — to religious groups who are willing to register with the state, display pro-CCP signage inside their churches, and censor teachings accordingly.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has labeled China a country of particular concern for its violations of religious liberty.
“Religious freedom conditions in China continue to deteriorate,” its website states. “The communist Chinese government has created a high-tech surveillance state, utilizing facial recognition and artificial intelligence to monitor and harass Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, Falon Gong and other religions.
“Independent experts estimate that between 900,000 and 1.8 million Uighur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and other Muslims have been detained in more than 1,300 concentration camps in Xinjiang.”
Amid increased crackdowns on churches and religious adherents, even those who would rather flee China than comply with the state’s stringent standards face difficulties evading the CCP’s clutches.
Such is the story of the exiled Shenzhen Holy Reformed Church, a group of believers now living in Thailand — far removed from the political boundaries of communist China, but much less so its determination to stamp out even the slightest whiff of dissidence.
“Political pressure is rising, and there’s more and more ideological control,“ Pastor Pan Yongguang recently told The Associated Press. “The persecution is growing worse.”
“They want to seal off Chinese churches from the outside world,” he said.
Although his small congregation of mostly middle-class families has no particular determination to speak out against the regime, Pan, who was ordained a minister in the U.S., drew attention for his overseas connections.
“Since starting the church in 2012, it has had to move from house to house as authorities ordered landlords to turn them away,” the AP reported.
“Police kept close track of church gatherings, recording attendees and hauling Pan in for questioning from time to time. The questions grew sharper after they discovered he was ordained into the Presbyterian church in Philadelphia, sharper still after new religious regulations in 2018.”
By 2019, the CCP’s megalomaniacal response to the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests drove officials to apply increasing pressure on the church, despite its lack of any connection to the activist movement.
The church members decided to put the matter to a vote, and it was decided by a strong majority that they would leave China.
“At the time, I thought maybe we could return after things settled down,” church member Nie Yunfeng said. “I never imagined things would get this bad.”
Using tactics quite reminiscent of the CCP’s former Soviet counterparts, Nie’s family and the families of other church members across China were summoned by police, who questioned them about the religious refugees, even going so far as to threaten that they could lose state benefits or that their businesses would be shut down if their family members did not return.
Pan showed the AP evidence that state security had been ordered to investigate his church.
“Your descendants may suffer,” police told Nie’s father. “Tell them to come back right now, or else they will face serious consequences.”
Pan’s brother, sisters and mother were told that he was guilty of “treason,” “collusion with foreign forces” and “subversion of state power.”
They ultimately fled to Bangkok — although when they gathered in a restaurant just days after arriving to share their plight with journalists, they became spooked when they noticed patrons filming them with their phones. The exiled Christians feared they were being spied upon by Chinese state security forces even there.
It is a story that would have been familiar to first-century Christians, even the Apostle Paul himself, who was followed by his enemies as he carried the Gospel throughout the Roman world (Acts 17).
Yet, just as he reassured his followers in multiple epistles that he was glad to suffer for the furtherance of the Gospel, our exiled Chinese brethren have also counted the cost of their own sacrifices.
Church elder Xie Jianqing told the AP that despite the difficulties of life in Thailand, where the mostly former white-collar professionals have had to resort to manual labor to survive, their children are also no longer forced to attend China’s compulsory state schools, which are infused with communist, atheist indoctrination.
“We’re willing to pay this price,” Xie said. “God always has the best plan.”
My fellow believers, we must not forget our brothers and sisters in bonds. Not only because they need our prayer, support and advocacy, but because their trials often serve to humble us tremendously and put our own sufferings in perspective.
Those who are willing to pay such a high price to follow Christ have much to teach us about taking up our crosses likewise. May we all be as bold and willing to lay it all down to carry his torch of liberty and salvation, casting its blaze on the darkness and chaos of this fallen world so all of his children can walk in his light — before it is too late.
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