By Louise Watt, AP
BEIJING–Three members of an imprisoned pastor’s family have sneaked out of China to the U.S. with the help of activists after complaining about an extended campaign of harassment by Chinese authorities, a Christian rights group said Tuesday.
Zhang Shaojie’s daughter, son-in-law and 1-year-old grandchild landed in Dallas, Texas, and have now gone to Midland, according to U.S.-based China Aid. The group said an underground network of activists helped the three leave China via Southeast Asia.
Zhang, who led the Nanle County Christian Church in the central province of Henan, was sentenced this month to 12 years in prison on charges of fraud and gathering crowds to disturb public order.
Zhang’s church is sanctioned by the communist government, which allows worship only in state-monitored groups, but was involved in a dispute with local authorities over land for a new building.
While land disputes are common in China, Zhang’s popularity prompted other Christians to rally around him to defend what they say is religious freedom.
China Aid founder Bob Fu said that after Zhang was sentenced, his elderly parents received threats and were harassed, his daughter’s car was kept by police and Nanle officials mobilized different government agencies to write to the court to ask for a longer sentence.
Calls to Nanle police and the press office of the Nanle Communist Propaganda Department rang unanswered. A press officer at the Henan police department said he did not have any information about Zhang Huixin and her family.
Fu said Zhang’s daughter, Zhang Huixin; her husband, Sun Zhulei; and their daughter, Sun Jiexi, were blocked at Beijing’s airport on June 23 from leaving the country by Chinese security officials citing “national security.” Nanle and Henan police officers were also at the airport monitoring them, he said.
Fu then flew to Southeast Asia to activate a network that escorted the three out of China and to the United States. He said U.S. authorities gave the family authorization to enter the country for one year during which they could decide whether to appeal for asylum on the grounds of religious freedom.
A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, Nolan Barkhouse, would not confirm the account.
The three arrived Tuesday in Midland, Texas, and were staying in a guesthouse owned by the First Baptist Church, Fu said.
“Our family and our church want to thank the U.S. government and many anonymous church leaders in different parts of the world for helping assist our family’s hard fought freedom,” Zhang was quoted as saying in an email from Fu. “Our family comes here to raise awareness of the deteriorating situation of religious freedom in Nanle and in China.”