Thursday, 19 Apr 2018
World

They ask for clemency for a prisoner imprisoned in China

Reverend John Sanqiang Cao paid no more than three dollars for the trip that would end up costing him his freedom. For years, he and other Chinese Christian teachers crossed the river on thin bamboo rafts from southern China to neighboring Myanmar, carrying notes, pencils and Bibles. The missionaries passed from one country to another – a nine-meter (30-foot) journey – in broad daylight, according to a US missionary traveling with Cao. The crossing of March 5, 2017, however, was different. Cao and a teacher were returning by raft to Yunnan Province when they saw Chinese security agents waiting on the riverbank. Years of work in clandestine churches and schools where the Bible was taught had prepared this prominent 58-year-old Christian leader for this moment. He threw his phone into the water, protecting the identities of more than 50 Chinese teachers he had recruited to offer children of the Burmese minority a free education based on Christian principles. But Cao could not escape. He was sentenced last month to seven years in prison for “organizing others to cross the border illegally,” a crime that covers mostly human trafficking. His American children and his Christian colleagues – who have not been able to contact him since his arrest – spoke about the case for the first time with the Associated Press, saying that the pastor’s sentence should be reduced because he did humanitarian work. “Nothing that my father did was political. They were always religious or charitable things, “said Ben Cao, the pastor’s 23-year-old son who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. “We hope that China will be merciful and see that my father’s intentions were good.” Cao’s punishment falls within the framework of a Beijing campaign to “sinizar”, or make more Chinese the main religions of the country, eliminate foreign influence and align the different faiths with atheist beliefs of the Communist Party. Analysts say the government regards the growth of Christianity in China as a threat and may be using prominent figures like Cao as an example to intimidate nascent movements. The case of the pastor seems to indicate that the party wants to extend its control of the faithful even when they are abroad. “This reflects a space of maneuver increasingly restricted under President Xi (Jinping), which limits all religious independence,” said Bob Fu, a Christian activist from Texas and an old friend of Cao. “In the past, when they talked about foreign infiltration they were referring to the activities of foreign missionaries inside China, but now they also refer to Chinese missionaries who go abroad.” New rules implemented in February indicate that Chinese who travel abroad for religious purposes without government authorization can be fined up to 200,000 yuan ($ 31,780). It transpired that ecclesiastical leaders who have not been approved by the state have not been able to leave the country. A spokesman for the State Department told the AP that the US government is “very concerned” about Cao’s sentence and urged the Chinese to release him on “humanitarian grounds” because he is a legal permanent resident of the United States. Cao plans to retire and return to his family in the United States after being released, a spokesperson said. Chris Smith, a lawmaker who heads a subcommittee of the lower house dedicated to human rights, said in a statement that “President Donald Trump should mention Pastor Cao when talking to Xi Jinping.” Cao was 20 years old when he met an American Christian couple who visited his village in the central province of Hunan. They gave him his first Bible and they wrote often, talking about Christianity. Cao, eldest son of teachers, told them that he had listened to the radio broadcasts of evangelist Billy Graham and felt the need to preach to the Chinese. He married an American, completed a seminar in New York and officiated the Chinese-American congregation in North Carolina, but he always retained his Chinese citizenship and divided his time between the two nations. He became involved with Protestant churches not recognized by the government, which are often tolerated by local authorities. He founded more than a dozen schools to study the Bible in central and southern China that educated teenagers from poor Christian families and made them pastors. Some became teachers in schools built by Cao in Myanmar. Most of the schools were raided and closed by agents of the security services in recent years, according to Cao supporters. Amos Cao, the 26-year-old pastor’s son, said his father’s magnetism made him a teacher by nature. Christianity grew rapidly in this region and its capacity for mobilization and resistance made it seen as a threat by the CP, according to analysts, particularly because of its links to Western civilization. “I suspect that (Cao) was arrested because of his prominence,” said Xi Lian, an expert on Chinese Christianity at Duke University. Lian said that “less visible” herders have been doing similar work on the border with Myanmar without consequences. But Cao, with his popularity, “is the kind of person who makes the Chinese government nervous.” There are currently more than 38 million Protestants in China, according to official estimates, and experts predict that China will have the largest Christian population in the world in a few decades. A Chinese Christian teacher arrested with Cao was convicted of a misdemeanor and has already regained his freedom. Cao tried to receive government approval for many of his projects, according to Ben Cao, and did not resist when the authorities ordered him to suspend certain initiatives. But anyway he was constantly watched. Darek Jarmola, an American teacher who heads trips for young Christians, says he remembers someone taking pictures of him and Cao when they ate in Hunan last January. Cao played down the episode, saying “I did not do anything wrong. If I do, they can arrest me. ” Security services officers often questioned Cao about his recruitment of Chinese volunteers to build more than a dozen schools in Myanmar’s Wa state, Fu said. “There were no secrets,” he said. “He always thought that he handled himself with the approval of the government.” The detention center where Cao remains refused to comment on the case. “The government chose the right church to persecute,” Cao once wrote, alluding to churches not recognized by the authorities. “Time has shown … that God is alive and kicking in China.”

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