WASHINGTON — It’s been over one year since Stephen first arrived in the U.S., fleeing from the communist government in China.
The Chinese Christian, whose church was shut down by government agents, told The Christian Post recently about the harassment he and his family faced before they fled the country.
Stephen (his real name will not be disclosed for security reasons) spoke with CP last week while attending the launch event of Open Doors USA’s 2020 World Watch List, an influential data report ranking the worst 50 countries in the world when it comes to Christian persecution.
Stephen’s church (which will not be named for security reasons) is one of nearly 6,000 underground churches shut down by officials in China as authorities have cracked down on the house church movement in recent years, according to Open Doors USA.
“I still kind of have [post-traumatic stress disorder],” Stephen said. “My sister asked me to immigrate to the states before. We prayed because we wanted to stay in China.”
Stephen and his family attended the underground church for nearly two years before it was shut down by government officials in 2018.
On the day his church was raided, the church’s pastor and other church members were arrested.
Stephen, however, was spared arrest that day because he was on an airplane returning to China from an international trip. Upon returning to the country, he spent a couple of days in Beijing before returning to his home city.
On the day of the church raid, Stephen said local police officials went to his family’s apartment and knocked on the door. However, his wife and four kids were too afraid to answer the door. Instead, his wife locked the doors and turned off the lights.
Although the police officials left the apartment complex without breaking down the door to the family’s apartment that day, the family’s trials with the authorities were only just beginning.
The next day while Stephen was still in Beijing, he got a call from his wife letting him know the electricity to their apartment had been shut off. His wife and kids were left in a freezing apartment in the dead of winter.
Stephen said he called the property manager to ask why the power had been cut off.
“He said the policeman asked him to shut it off to see if anybody is living there,” Stephen said.
He told the property manager that they did live there but he was on a business trip.
The property manager told Stephen that he would report that to the police and would turn the power back on if allowed. Although power was turned back on within 30 minutes of Stephen’s phone call, electricity in their apartment was shut off again the next day hours after Stephen arrived back home.
He again called the property manager. But this time, the property manager told him that he couldn’t turn the power back on until Stephen showed up at the local police station.
'I prepared to go to jail'
He went to the local police station. He said he was prepared to be imprisoned.
“I wore a very heavy jacket and heavy pants,” he said. “I go there and told the police officer, ‘Why you turn off the power? You can just call me. You have my phone number.’ And he said, ‘If we do not do that, you won't show up.’”
Stephen said he was ordered by a police officer to write his name and government identification number on a piece of paper in addition to the names and ID numbers of his wife and kids.
At that point, the police official introduced Stephen to three “community officials” who wanted to discuss issues related to the closure of the church and a school affiliated with the church that his children attended.
The officials offered his children free seats in a public school. Although some Chinese families desire the opportunity to send their children to a good public school, Stephen refused the offer.
“I said ‘Oh, thank you so much. I know this is a very good opportunity but please give to other people,’” he recalled. “My wife and I are Christians. We want to educate [our children] with God's Word.”
The officials didn’t seem happy with his refusal and left the room.
One government official then asked him to sign a document vowing that he would no longer attend the church or be in contact with any of his friends from the church. Additionally, the document prohibited any posting online about church matters and street preaching.
Stephen refused to sign the document, stressing that “friends and family need our support.”
“They were scared about why we visit each other. That's human beings doing natural things,” Stephen told CP. “I want the freedom to visit my brothers and sisters. I want to contact them. So I could not sign.”
“I understood they are doing their duties. They are under pressure,” he added of the government officials. “As Christians, we pray for them. They have to do whatever they do to earn money. So they kind of surprisingly let me go home.”
To this day, he is not sure why the authorities released him that day.
'They probably didn’t get the order to get me'
Although Stephen carried non-pastoral responsibilities within his local Christian community, he is not as outspoken as some other members of the community.
“Until now, I don't know why they didn’t break our door to the apartment,” he said.
He even stressed that although the government places “spies” in his church, many of the spies probably didn’t know him because he was very much behind the curtain in his role.
“They probably didn't get the order to get me,” he said. “They want to treat me like regular other church members to do wellness education. That's their job. But in this case, the higher-level officials saw I went to this church only less than two years.”
In the weeks following the church raid, Stephen was urged by fellow church members to flee from the area. There was fear that authorities would again arrest him and prod information from him related to ministry operations that could help the prosecution's case against the pastor.
He was eventually contacted through text message by a man claiming to be a lawyer representing landlords of properties rented by a ministry affiliated with the church.
The lawyer threatened to sue if he did not show up for a meeting the next day.
Stephen said he had reason to believe that the man who contacted him was not working for landlords but rather for government officials.
He was invited to teach a two-day class for Christian leaders in his home city. During those two days, he said he was chased by a police officer. The police officer also called his wife and asked: “Where are you?”
He and his family decided to follow through on the wishes of Christian leaders and fled from their city weeks after the raid on the church. On the day they departed, he said, special police were camped outside of his apartment from 9 a.m. until 10 p.m.
They traveled city-to-city in China, staying in Airbnbs he rented through friends’ names and in some friends’ houses.
About a month after fleeing their home city, they flew to the U.S.
In the U.S., Stephen and his family of six have shared one room in Stephen’s sibling’s home. Although he desires to go back to China, Christian leaders back home have warned that he shouldn't return home yet.
China ranks as the 23rd worst country in the world when it comes to Christian persecution on Open Doors USA’s 2020 World Watch List. China has for years been labeled as a “country of particular concern” for egregious religious freedom violations by the U.S. State Department.
Open Doors USA CEO David Curry warned last week that through the use of a social score system and surveillance technology, China is creating a “system of persecution for the future” and is the “greatest threat” to human rights in the world today.
“I saw with my own eyes the surveillance on the street but also in the churches, watching their congregation,” Curry said. “Facial scans when you come in and then tracking you and generating reports [with] assumptions built into their artificial intelligence system that is tracking Christian behavior.”