In 2019 dozens of church members from Shenzhen Holy Reformed Church made the momentous decision to leave their home country of China to seek safety and freedom overseas. Years of harassment, intimidation and police raids had convinced them that they had no choice but to flee. They settled in Jeju Island in South Korea, but their ordeal is far from over.
Shenzhen Holy Reformed Church (SHRC) was founded in 2012 by Pastor Pan Yongguang, a former doctor. It was originally based in Shenzhen City, just 30 miles from Hong Kong.
‘When I went to this church, it felt like home’, says one woman who attends SHRC with her sister. ‘In this church, we love each other…We are a family.’
But by October 2012, the campaign of harassment had begun.
The police were ‘polite’ at first, but soon increased the pressure.
In September 2014, police simultaneously interrogated SHRC and two connected churches, wanting to know about some US missionaries that the church were planning to invite for a visit. After Pastor Pan and nine others were ordained by US missionaries in Hong Kong, the interrogations became fortnightly at least. Police followed Pan wherever he went.
The Timothy School, which is run by the church, was also subjected to harassment. Police pressured the landlord to evict them, and when they eventually relocated, CCTV recorded everyone who entered and exited the building.
On one occasion, a teacher saw that the police were coming to inspect the building and told the children to hide in a cupboard: ‘The kids were really scared. Because they were frightened, they stayed quiet. Thankfully the police didn’t check too carefully.’
All parents wanted was the freedom to educate their children, but they received pressurising calls from the government education department.
A turning point
Controls on church life tightened even further in February 2018, when the government issued revised regulations on religious activities. Over 400 Christian leaders responded by condemning the regulations in a joint statement: ‘A Declaration for the Sake of the Christian Faith’. Pastor Pan and two elders from SHRC were among those who signed the declaration, as was Pastor Wang Yi of Early Rain Church; Wang Yi would be arrested later that same year.
The declaration marked a turning point, after which police continuously disrupted Pastor Pan’s life. They pressured Pan’s landlord to evict him and his family, and tried to prevent them from finding a new place to call home. They later demanded that he disband the church, close the school and cut off all contact with Christians in the US.
‘Anything I wanted to do, anywhere I wanted to go, the police always seemed to know about it,’ said Pan.
‘They don’t need a reason’
More and more, the police would show up on Sundays to stop the worship service. One member describes what it was like:
‘They grabbed our arms and would not let us leave. I was very scared. All the kids were crying. The police burst in and caught all the men. There were 50 police officers… In China, if the police want to take you away, they don’t need a reason. They say, “Come with me” and you have no choice.’
Another time, a church member overheard some plainclothes police officers in the park, talking about a planned raid the following day. The church cancelled their gathering and avoided arrest that time, but it was clear that the harassment was not going to stop.
The final straw
In summer 2019, Pastor Pan bought a plane ticket to go to Thailand for seminary training. On the morning of the flight, two police officers stationed outside his home prevented Pan and his wife, Wang Fang, from leaving the building. They knew all about his plans, and there was nothing Pan could do.
From that time onwards, the church leaders started talking about leaving China.
A new home
Leaving China was not an easy decision for anyone – they all had loved ones still living in China – but the pressure on the church was unbearable. The authorities were closing churches across the country, and with each piece of bad news, SHRC were convinced that they would be next.
A majority voted to leave. They made the journey alone or in family groups, the last of them arriving in South Korea in January 2020, just before the pandemic would have made the journey impossible.
However, two families were refused entry after South Korean immigration believed them to be economic migrants. At least one person was taken back to China for interrogation and banned from travelling or contacting the church.
Since then, those who did arrive safely have endured cramped living conditions and limited work options due to the language barrier. Even more importantly, the South Korean government has rejected their claims for asylum; the appeals process is ongoing, but at the time of writing the outlook is not promising. In the meantime, the church, which includes more than 30 children, continues to face challenges and uncertainty.
The eldest children in the church, who moved over to South Korea as young teens, also feel the difference between the country where they grew up and their new home. They have heard the news from China: church schools closed down, Christian publishers arrested, as well as wider restrictions unrelated to religion.
Bit by bit, people’s basic rights and freedoms, and their very privacy, are being eroded. Even seemingly insignificant new rules point to a more alarming change. As 15-year-old Paul observes:
‘The government set a limitation on the time children can play computer games. I think this is bad because the government’s hand has entered the home. If they put one hand in, eventually they will put two hands in, that is, they will seek more control over people’s lives.’
Yet despite all this church members break into smiles when they talk about being able to worship freely at last:
‘There was no one watching us, no one checking up on us. No-one was going to burst through the door… We were safe.’
Many things about the future are uncertain: will they be able to stay in South Korea, or will they have to seek sanctuary elsewhere? But their future, the church believes, is in God’s hands. For now, just being able to freely worship God feels like a miracle. As one young woman said,
‘On Sundays in China, when we gathered together, we were scared all the time… But here our hearts are free. We are not scared any more.’