Family members of a well-known Chinese pastor who was sentenced to 12 years in prison last month have escaped to the United States, China Aid has revealed.
Guided by Chinese Christian convert and activist Bob Fu's organization, Zhang Shaojie's daughter, Zhang Huixin, son-in-law, Sun Zhulei, and 1-year-old granddaughter, Sun Jiexi, discreetly Southeast China before arriving in Dallas, Texas, on Monday.
Zhang, who led the Nanle County Christian Church in the central province of Henan, was sentenced in July to 12 years in prison on charges of fraud and gathering crowds to disturb public order, the Associated Press reports.
The pastor's family was also harassed following his arrest; his elderly parents received threats and were continually berated, his daughter's car was kept by police and local officials mobilized different government agencies to write to the court to ask for a longer sentence.
In an email from Fu, Zhang expressed his gratitude that his daughter's family was now secure.
"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. Our family comes here to raise awareness of the deteriorating situation of religious freedom in Nanle and in China," he wrote.
The prominent pastor's church is sanctioned by the Chinese government, which allows worship only in state-monitored groups. The pastor was arrested shortly after a dispute arose with local authorities over land for a new building, the Charlotte Observer reports.
According to Bob Fu, the head of China Aid, Zhang's arrest symbolizes the Chinese government's desire to prevent the growth of Christianity.
"This case shows the Chinese government continues to cover up religious persecution with fabricated criminal charges against an innocent church leader," said Fu, according to The Telegraph.
Liu Weiguo, a Chinese rights lawyer, expressed shock at the severity of the Chinese government.
"I strongly believe Zhang Shaojie is innocent. This is a total set-up by the local government," the lawyer said.
The U.S. Department of State also expressed anger at Zhang's sentence, calling China's decision a "retaliation for his peaceful advocacy on behalf of his church community."
"We call on Chinese authorities to release Pastor Zhang and we urge China to cease harassment of his family members and congregants. We call on the Chinese authorities to allow citizens to worship freely in accordance with China's own laws and its international human rights commitments. Freedom of religion is a critical - is critical to a peaceful, inclusive, stable, and thriving society," spokesperson Jen Psaki said.