The members of Shenzen Holy Reformed Church assembled one final time for training on Christian persecution from Voice of the Martyrs Korea at a secret location on Jeju Island on August 28. Unlike the previous trainings, however, this time only a handful of congregation members were present in person. The majority of the 61 members joined via videoconference.
“They had left Jeju for Thailand earlier that week,” says Voice of the Martyrs Korea Representative Dr Hyun Sook Foley. The remainder, she says, departed in the days following her organization’s visit. Now the church members have filed applications for refugee status at the United Nations refugee office in Bangkok and are living quietly in separate hotels while they await the agency’s determination.
The Shenzen congregation, dubbed the “Mayflower Church” by global religious freedom advocates, fled China in 2019 for Jeju Island, where they had been supporting themselves by doing menial labor while applying for asylum in Korea. After having their application denied at multiple levels of the Korean court system, the group decided to take flight again.
“They were concerned about what they saw as growing harassment by Chinese authorities of family members who had remained in China,” says Representative Foley. She says the church members also suspected that Chinese authorities might soon try to kidnap or blackmail church members in Jeju, since they had been unable to secure legal protections of asylum in Korea. “The church’s goal is to obtain official refugee status, which they believe in the short term will prevent China from forcibly repatriating them, and in the long term could lead to permanent resettlement in a country like the United States.”
Representative Foley says that her organization first learned about the church when the pastor, Pan Yongguang, called through an interpreter to request a private meeting at the airport. “He and his church members had traveled as tourists and arrived on Jeju Island with almost nothing,” says Representative Foley. “In order to avoid being detained during their departure, they had not communicated their plan to anyone in advance, including us.”
Representative Foley says Pastor Pan explained how he had founded the Shenzen Holy Reformed Church in 2012 under the oversight of Philadelphia Bible Reformed Church in the United States. “Pastor Pan shared with us that because of his connection to a foreign religious group, he began to be interrogated by authorities at least twice a week beginning in 2014,” says Representative Foley. “When he refused to affiliate the church with the Chinese Communist Party-approved Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TPSM), authorities pressured the landlord of the building where the church-run elementary school was located to evict them. Church members didn’t want to send their children to state-run schools to be indoctrinated into atheism and communism, so they voted to flee China as a whole church in 2019.”
Representative Foley says her organization explained to Pastor Pan that Voice of the Martyrs Korea does not help Christians to escape persecution but instead equips Christians to make a faithful witness in the midst of persecution. She says that Pastor Pan expressed understanding of the organization’s policy, as well as interest in having the organization provide comprehensive persecution-related training to his whole church, adults as well as children.
“Fortunately, Pastor Pan and the Mayflower Church were able to receive a lot of help from Korean churches and refugee ministries while they lived in Jeju, awaiting the determination on their application for asylum in Korea,” says Representative Foley. She says Christian attorneys worked with the group to file a number of applications and appeals as they faced denial of their request at each level of the Korean court system.
Representative Foley says that during the church’s three years on Jeju Island, Voice of the Martyrs Korea visited them several times a year to provide multiple-day training sessions on what the Bible teaches about persecution in the life of the Christian.
She says that it was only in preparing to visit the church again last month that her organization learned that church members were already in the process of departing Jeju for Thailand in small groups, just as they had arrived three years earlier.
“When we called to let Pastor Pan know we’d be coming down to provide the training, he told us that he wasn’t sure how many church members would still be there, but he wanted us to come and encourage them one final time before their departure,” says Representative Foley. “It wasn’t until our team arrived that Pastor Pan was able to share fully with us about the church’s departure.”
Representative Foley says they brought Voice of the Martyrs Canada CEO Floyd Brobbel with them to address the church. “Mr. Brobbel reminded the Mayflower congregation from 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 that God’s strength is perfected in weakness, and that in Christ we are never exiled spiritually even when we are exiled from our own country. It was a poignant time, with the congregation listening from two different countries, neither one of which was their permanent home.”
Representative Foley says her organization is honored to have been the first organization to greet the church on its arrival to Korea and the last one to say goodbye to the church in its departure. “God doesn’t seem to have sent the church here to Korea for permanent asylum,” she says. “God seems to have sent the church here so that we at Voice of the Martyrs Korea could study together with them what the Bible teaches about persecution and faithful witness. So many Korean churches and ministries and attorneys helped them out while they were here. Voice of the Martyrs Korea’s part in the process was to prepare them for whatever comes next.”
Representative Foley says that she expects her organization to remain in contact with Pastor Pan and the Mayflower Church members. “Other groups are continuing to care for their resettlement costs and legal needs,” says Representative Foley. “But God seems to give us at Voice of the Marytrs Korea the role of reminding them what the Bible teaches about persecution in the life of the believer. We pray that wherever God sends them, they will be his faithful witnesses.”
Individuals interested in learning more about Voice of the Martyrs Korea’s work in partnership with underground Chinese Christians wherever they are found can visit www.vomkorea.com/en/china.