The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has written to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, expressing their concern for a case involving a Chinese Christian seeking asylum in the U.S., according to a press release dated Oct 3.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in the case Li v. Gonzalez, upheld a decision made by the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) that overturned a decision by an Immigration Judge that granted Li Xiaodong of Ningpo, China "withholding" of removal from the United States.
The Fifth Circuit agreed with the Justice Department that Li, who was charged for organizing unregistered church activities, was prosecuted for failing to register his church, instead of persecution based on his religion.
USCIRF is "deeply troubled" with this ruling and the impact it may exert on similar cases in the future by undermining the international leadership of the United States in protecting asylum seekers and advancing the freedom of religious rights.
"The decision to deny Mr. Li protection is at odds with the positions advanced by the Administration and the State Department on conditions for freedom of religion in China and whether or not those conditions amount to violations of international human rights standards," USCIRF Chair Michael Cromartie said on behalf of the Commission.
The letter said that the Commission does not usually take a position on individual asylum cases, but was compelled to argue for Li.
Li was a member of the underground evangelical Christian church when he was arrested for holding illegal church services. He escaped to the U.S. and sought asylum.
The U.S. immigration courts, last year, completed about 65,000 applications for asylum seekers. Of those cases, 20 percent of the applicants came from China. Asylum allows refugees to work in the United States and to later apply for permanent residence.
However, they need to prove they are refugees, escaping persecution because of their nationality, membership in a particular social group, political beliefs, race, or religion.
The letter said that "Mr. Li was arrested, beaten and detained for five days, lost his job, was forced to clean public toilets without pay, and faced prosecution and – potentially – years of imprisonment."
"BIA and the Fifth Circuit found Mr. Li to be credible," however "they ordered him removed," Cromartie said. "As a precedent, Li v. Gonzales will effectively provide a refuge from international law for those countries that criminalize 'unregistered' religious activity."
The Commission recently returned from a trip to China and said that they are "concerned with the increasing trend by China and other authoritarian governments to criminalize religious activity on the sole basis that the activity is not approved or…registered by the government," Cromartie said.
"Section 3 of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 defines...religious registration requirements as a 'violation of the internationally recognized right to religious freedom,'" Cromartie added.
The USCIRF was created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to monitor the status of religious freedom as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with regards to these matters, it advises the President, the Secretary of State and Congress.