China has announced its decision to uphold a North Carolina pastor’s seven-year prison sentence for "organizing illegal border crossings" — a crime more commonly applied to human traffickers — despite his appeal.
Pastor John Cao, who along with a fellow Christian teacher allegedly crossed the China-Myanmar border last March, filed an appeal for being wrongfully convicted of “organizing illegal border crossings” in 2018.
After postponing Cao’s hearing several times, a court in China’s Yunnan province announced on July 25 it had decided to uphold the sentence, persecution watching group International Christian Concern reported.
The court was “surrounded by a heavy police presence,” according to China Aid, which also noted that Cao's 83-year-old mother and his sister, along with their lawyer, were allowed to hear the verdict.
Cao, a U.S. permanent resident from Greensboro, North Carolina, and his co-worker, Jing Ruxia, were arrested after coming back into China from neighboring Myanmar on March 5, 2017.
The two men had been volunteering to teach at 16 schools in northern Myanmar which serve more than 2,000 students. Cao had been ferrying back and forth across a river that divides the countries for more than three years without pushback from either government.
Ahead of his arrest, Cao managed to throw away his cellphone into the water while on a raft returning from Yunnan province as part of his school-building efforts. His actions managed to protect 50 other Christian teachers.
Despite a lack of evidence, Cao was sentenced to prison by a Chinese court while being held for a year following his arrest. The prosecutor only submitted written witness testimonies, and the pastor was denied the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses or to provide rebuttal evidence, according to the ACLJ.
The court’s latest verdict came after Cao’s lawyers received a notice on July 12, stating that the pastor's appeal would be handled via a “trial session on paper only,” instead of an actual hearing.
Last year, Jamie Powell, Coa's wife, spoke at the State Department's first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C., where she said her husband was “set up for his arrest because of his faith-driven work.”
"Since his detainment, my husband has suffered a rapid decline in his health,” she said. “He has lost 50 pounds. He has not been able to communicate with me and my children. My sons and I traveled there — 10,000 miles — and we were not allowed to see him.”
"The seven years he has unjustly received now becomes a matter of health and survival."
Gina Goh, ICC’s Regional Manager for Southeast Asia, said the unjust trial and trumped-up charges against Cao “once again demonstrate the disregard for rule of law and religious freedom in China.”
“Beijing’s crackdown against Christianity should not be tolerated or ignored,” Goh said. “The international community must continue speaking out for oppressed churches and Christians in order to stop their suffering.”
China ranks as the 27th worst nation in the world when it comes to Christian persecution, according to Open Doors USA’s World Watch List. The persecution watchdog has described the situation facing Christians in China as the worst since the Cultural Revolution and has dubbed Asia “the new hotbed of persecution for Christians.”