WASHINGTON (BP) — The human rights organization ChinaAid is initiating a petition drive to free John Cao, a Chinese pastor who has been imprisoned since March 2017.
According to ChinaAid, Cao was “unjustly framed” — sentenced to seven years in prison and fined $3,000 — for “organizing illegal border crossing” in a ministry that has helped build 16 schools serving 2,000 students among the impoverished Wa people group in neighboring Myanmar (Burma).
Because Cao had often taken the same route into Myanmar, ChinaAid said it believes Chinese authorities targeted him “because of his religious beliefs.”
ChinaAid will launch a White House petition on Aug. 2 to call on U.S. officials “to pressure China to release him and allow him to be reunited with his wife and sons.”
Cao is a U.S. green card holder who studied at Alliance Seminary in Nyack, N.Y., while maintaining his Chinese citizenship, according to a July 24 report in Christianity Today.
The petition needs 100,000 signatures within 30 days in order to gain presidential attention, Brynne Lawrence, ChinaAid’s English editor, told Baptist Press.
“We are really trying to push for this pastor’s freedom and are hoping it will be effective because of his ties to the U.S.,” she said.
A link to provide a reminder to sign the petition using Google Calendar is in an online ChinaAid article titled “How you can help free an imprisoned Chinese pastor” (http://www.chinaaid.org/2018/07/how-you-can-help-free-imprisoned.html).
Cao and a coworker were arrested in March 2017; he was sentenced in February of this year, when the coworker was freed.
Cao’s wife, Jamie Powell, an American citizen, set forth his case during the State Department’s Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom July 24-26 in Washington.
“Spreading education wasn’t just the side goal of my husband,” Powell said, according to Christianity Today’s July 24 report. “It was his call from God. Education was the vehicle with which to enable freedom from poverty and moral wrongs.”
Before his work in Myanmar, Cao had been questioned and was under surveillance by Chinese authorities for his involvement in building schools in southwestern China’s Guizhou and Yunnan provinces.
Cao became intent on aiding communities across the Chinese/Myanmar border after a 2012 visit among the Kachin people, Christianity Today recounted.
“He was shocked by the poverty he saw,” Powell told the State Department gathering of international officials. “Children without clothes, child mortality rates really high, a makeshift school with a pigpen adjacent to the classroom.”
Cao and his wife have two sons who reside in the U.S.
ChinaAid’s work includes legal and financial aid to those being targeted in China for their religious beliefs.
“We believe that there is no religious freedom unless everyone has religious freedom,” Lawrence said. “We also advocate for human rights because we believe that religious freedom is the first human right, then after that you have freedom of the press and freedom to … make your own life based on your own beliefs, so we fight for that.”
ChinaAid also works to “expose the persecutions through their online platform (chinaaid.org) along with going in front of Congress and other various government bodies to present these abuses,” Lawrence said.
The organization was founded in 2002 by Bob Fu, who faced persecution for serving as an English teacher to communist party officials by day and leading an underground house church by night in China.
Once Fu and his wife were released from prison, Lawrence said, they received word of “five pastors in China who had been wrongly sentenced to death, so they decided to found ChinaAid and they sent out their first press releases, got the organization off the ground, and provided those pastors with legal aid and ended up getting those death sentences overturned.
“Ever since, they have been receiving reports and similarly helping people in their religious freedom and human rights cases,” Lawrence said.
Fu was the 2007 recipient of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s John Leland Religious Liberty Award.
In recent months, Lawrence noted, China has tightened its Regulations for Religious Affairs that works to ban house churches.
“[This act] has become less open for interpretation among various officials and a lot of officials in locations around China are beginning to crack down on the house churches even harder and [the churches] are forced to close,” she said.
The regulations have the stated aim of “protect[ing] citizens’ freedom of religious belief,” World Watch Monitor reported in February.
Yet: “Detailed criteria are given for religious organizations to meet in order to be registered or to establish a place for religious activities,” the international religious liberty news service reported. “Religious affairs departments of local governments are given the power to decide the fate of the registration application, as well as the authorization of venues as places of worship. The regulations also require religious teachers and staff members to report to the same authorities.”
For more information about religious repression in China and about ChinaAid, visit chinaaid.org.