The difficulties that the members of The Church of Almighty God face with respect to their asylum requests in France are not very different from those they encounter in other European countries. Nevertheless, I am going to list the main, and in my opinion wrong, reasons for which an overwhelming percentage of requests have been denied in France. I will explain briefly why, and how France could improve its vision of the members of The Church of Almighty God as well as its knowledge of this Church, review its decisions, and grant asylum to the genuine refugees.
Several cases show a confusion between the movements called House Churches and the ones which are included in China in the official list of “Xie Jiao” (“evil cults”, or more exactly “unorthodox teachings.”) While the former ones are not systematically persecuted, the latter are without doubt a constant target of persecution by the Chinese authorities, and this is inscribed in the very provisions of the Chinese Criminal Code. Because of this confusion, French courts have argued several times that there is no “systematic persecution”, based on the incorrect presupposition that The Church of Almighty God is one of the House Churches, and ignoring its presence on the list of “Xie Jiao.” However, a few recent decisions in France have finally recognized that a systematic persecution exists in China against The Church of Almighty God.
Most of the conclusions of French Courts are based on a document published by the DIDR (Division of Information, Documentation, and Research), the division of the OFPRA (French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless) that is in charge of gathering information to support OPFRA agents in their decision-making process. This document has been compiled on the basis of sources available on the Internet until a few years ago, and these were mostly documents emanating from, or influenced by, the propaganda of Chinese anti-cultists. It contains numerous errors that give a wrong picture of the Church, its doctrine, its social positions, etc. Recently, four well-known religious scholars1 have written to the DIDR, in order to offer correct data on the movement, and tackling one by one the errors contained in the DIDR document. The DIDR has not answered yet, but it is clear that this independent expert opinion should completely change the way French authorities take their decisions concerning the asylum seekers from The Church of Almighty God.
The same happens with three documents on The Church of Almighty God published by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada in 2013 and 2014, on the basis of the information available in these years, i.e. before serious scholarly studies of the Church started being published. These documents are regarded as authoritative in France. Again, recently, the same four religious scholars2 have written an expert opinion that has been sent to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, giving updated and more accurate data on the Church and asking that the old documents be corrected. Paradoxically, while often quoted in France, the Canadian documents are almost never quoted in decisions rendered in Canada about the asylum seekers of The Church of Almighty God, whose applications have been accepted in a large majority of cases.
Based on these different documents, several French negative decisions concluded incorrectly that some asylum seekers were not really members of The Church of Almighty God, because their answers about the Church during the interviews did not fit exactly with the content of the DIDR and Canadian documents. Having reviewed the answers that led to these wrong conclusions, it appears to me, as it appears to the experts who have studied in depth the doctrine of the Church, that the asylum seekers presented their Church correctly, while the French authorities’ information was wrong. To give you an example, one Court considered that the fact that a member “didn’t know anything about the apocalyptic prediction of the 21 December 2012” was astonishing (and proved that the pretended member of the Church was not a genuine one), whilst in fact, The Church of Almighty God as such never promoted such a prediction and never considered it a part of its doctrine. Even scholars who have no sympathy for The Church of Almighty God recognize this fact, and mention that those members of the Church of Almighty God that shared the enthusiasm prevailing in China for the so called maya prophecies about the end of the world in 2012 were disciplined by their leaders, and some were expelled.3
French authorities considered in several decisions that the fact that the members were able to escape from China, sometimes with the help of officers who granted them valid passports, was a proof that there was no persecution. This stems from a real lack of knowledge of the Chinese society. A recent expert opinion by an Italian Professor of Sociology, PierLuigi Zoccatelli, who has studied both Chinese religious movements and Chinese immigration into Europe, explains very well how Chinese emigrants can easily take advantage of the flaws of the Chinese system, and sometimes of the corruption prevailing in China, to get proper passports, even when theoretically they should not be able to get them.
Some decisions, while recognizing the existing persecution targeting The Church of Almighty God in China, considered that the individual asylum seeker could not prove that she or he was a prominent member with a “specific position inside the Church,” and as a consequence was not at risk to be persecuted if sent back to China. Of course, this argument is narrow-minded. The Chinese Criminal Code, as commonly interpreted by courts in China, is quite clear that the mere fact of being “active” in a Xie Jiao group is a crime punished with a jail penalty, without distinguishing whether the member occupies a “specific position” or is just a common devotee.4 So, the risk of persecution, as well as the fear of being persecuted, as requested by UN standards to obtain the status of refugee, exist even for members who do not occupy a “specific position” in the Church.
As mentioned earlier, a few decisions from the French National Court of Asylum Seekers (CNDA) have recognized the systematic persecution of the members of The Church of Almighty God. This is a good evolution that, if confirmed by subsequent case-law, will open the door to many more fair decisions regarding the asylum seekers of The Church of Almighty God. In the last year, the production of academic literature on The Church of Almighty God has considerably increased. Many reliable documents have been produced, and for the first time ever it is possible to really understand the doctrine of this peculiar Christian Church, as well as the challenges it faces regarding its persecution in China. It is therefore of utmost importance that the French authorities dealing with asylum seekers become acquainted with this academic literature, in order to correct the data they were relying upon due to the lack of reliable sources.
There is today no doubt that The Church of Almighty God is suffering persecution in China. There is no doubt that its members face a real and immediate risk of being sent to jail based on their religious affiliation if sent back to China where thousands of them have been tortured and at least 30 members lost their life in jail. Whilst it is very understandable that the French authorities want to ensure that asylum seekers are genuine refugees, rather than economic immigrants simply pretending to be persecuted, the decisions regarding those who claim to be members of The Church of Almighty God should be taken with a real knowledge of this Church based on in-depth studies, not on Chinese anti-cult propaganda or journalists who merely repeat it.
What is at stake is not a minor issue. What is at stake is the safety of persecuted human beings, and for the members of the Church, it is a matter of life or death. Sending back to China members of The Church of Almighty God is tantamount to being accomplice of the persecution they will have to suffer. While it is understandable that errors occur when there is a lack of data available to take proper decisions, this excuse does not exist anymore today. Reliable data exist, they are available, and they must be studied carefully and taken into account by the French Authorities.
1 Susan Palmer, Massimo Introvigne, Holly Folk, and Bernadette Rigal-Cellard.
2 Susan Palmer, Massimo Introvigne, Holly Folk, and Bernadette Rigal-Cellard.
3 See Emily Dunn, Lightning from the East: Heterodoxy and Christianity in Contemporary China. Leiden: Brill, 2015, p. 95.
4 See the expert opinion by the American legal scholar and sociologist James Richardson, an eminent specialist who has been invited repeatedly to lecture in China by the Chinese authorities themselves.