Church of Almighty God Refugee Cases Discussed in New Book

Reactions to the Law by Minority Religions, cover

Massimo Introvigne and Rosita Šorytė explore while some asylum applications are still rejected, and what can be done about it.

by Alessandro Amicarelli — Reactions to the Law by Minority Religions, edited by Eileen Barker and James T. Richardson (London and New York: Routledge, 2021), is an exceptional book, which will serve as a manual for judges, lawyers, and scholars for years to come. It is not new to describe how minority religions are often discriminated by the laws and their enforcement, but for the first time this volume discusses what is done, or should be done to counter this state of the affairs. Readers of Bitter Winter will find in the book articles from familiar names, from the two well-known editors to Susan Palmer, Peter Zoehrer, Eric Roux.

As a lawyer who has paid attention to the persecution in China of The Church of Almighty God (CAG), the largest Christian religious movement in that country, I would like to review here the chapter Massimo Introvigne and Rosita Šorytė have devoted to administrative and court cases involving CAG refugees who seek asylum in democratic countries. Since the CAG is currently the most persecuted religious movement in China, it is also the group involved in the largest number of asylum cases abroad, more than 5,000 at the time the book was published.

In the first part of the chapter, the authors review international refugee law, which is based on conventions that all the countries where CAG members are seeking asylum have signed and ratified. A key point is that to be granted asylum, it is not necessary to prove that the refugee has already been personally persecuted. As clearly stated in article 1 of the 1967 international Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, a “well-founded fear of being persecuted” for reasons including the refugee’s “religion” is enough. According to Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in this case the refugee has a true “right” to be granted asylum, independent from the policies of each state. Since there is no doubt that, under Article 300 of the Chinese Criminal Code, all those active in religious movements banned as xie jiao, including the CAG, face arrest and imprisonment, or worse, once a refugee proves to be a CAG member, asylum should be granted based on the principle of the “well-founded fear” of persecution.

In practice, however, in the CAG cases, this is not always happening. The authors note that, at least in some countries, the situation has improved since international scholars have started publishing valuable books and articles with reliable information on the CAG, which was previously known only through media reports influenced by the fake news spread by Chinese propaganda. In fact, to justify the persecution, the CCP had falsely depicted the CAG as a violent, murderous “cult,” responsible in particular for the homicide of a woman in a McDonald’s diner in Zhaoyuan, Shandong, in 2014, a crime in fact perpetrated by a different small religious group not part of the CAG.

As a result, the authors report, better COI have been produced. The COI are the “Country of Origin Information” documents that administrative authorities and courts rely on to assess what would be the situation of the refugees should they be compelled to return back to their country. Canada, the Netherlands, Italy, and the United States are among the countries that have published more updated COIs discussing the situation of the CAG in recent years. This should hopefully put a halt to situations where refugees were interviewed about the CAG and told that their answers, confronted with some COI, proved that they did not know their own religion and were not bona fide CAG members, while in fact the refugees’ answers were correct, and the old COI were wrong.

While the better COI have resulted in more cases where asylum has been granted, some authorities and courts still rely on old, outdated COI, and even on hostile, unreliable media accounts. Chinese embassies are also active in spreading negative information about the CAG, a phenomenon noted particularly in Japan and South Korea, where no CAG asylum application has been granted. On the other hand, these are countries very reluctant to grant asylum to refugees in general.

Introvigne and Šorytė insist that, even when the authorities are satisfied that the CAG is persecuted and that CAG members who would return to China would be persecuted, asylum is not automatically granted. The story told by the refugee should still be assessed as “credible,” and an alleged lack of credibility is the reason for most negative decisions. The authors note that CAG refugees come from a different culture, and it is not always easy for them to tell their story in a way that would be easily understandable for foreign authorities. It is also often the case that administrative commissions use underpaid translators of substandard quality. Commissions and courts, they suggest, should not see the refugee as a defendant and shop for contradictions in details looking for a pretext to deny asylum. Rather, they should assess the overall credibility of the refugee’s story, which is not contradicted by the fact that some details may not be entirely clear.

Finally, the authors mention the issue of the passports. In several cases, asylum is denied with the argument that, if the refugee was really persecuted, a passport should have been impossible to obtain. Legally, a CAG member who has not yet been identified as such and persecuted still has a “well-founded fear” of persecution. In China, the police are continuously trying to locate CAG members, rewards are paid to those who report them, and those who are not yet known as CAG devotees—and thus are able to obtain a passport—may be identified at any moment, meaning they live in a “well-founded fear of being persecuted.”

In practice, Introvigne and Šorytė argue, even some known as CAG members may obtain a passport, not only because not all names of suspects are immediately registered in the national police data base, but also considering how widespread corruption is in China. It is a country where everything can be bought from rogue officers, including passports and deletion of one’s name and biometrical data from police electronic records.

Ultimately, the authors note, two questions are crucial. The first is the countries’ willingness to comply with their international obligations under refugee conventions, at a time when Chinese influence and pressures are heavy on several governments, and refugees in general are not popular. The second is the need that administrative officers and judges do their homework, read the new and more authoritative COI rather than using some that are old or misinformed, understand that academic scholars are sources more credible than the media, and also study the question of how passports are delivered in China, without relying on the dogmatic but false statements in some COI that the Chinese police are omniscient, incorruptible, and infallible.

These are not suggestions the authors offer lightly. The liberty and life of thousands of CAG refugees depend on whether they will be allowed to stay in the democratic countries where they have escaped, or will be returned to their torturers in China.