Paul Yoo at first thought the text was a joke, or perhaps spam. “Chinese secrets are like the heavens and the big mountains. Do not reveal or talk about them,” read the cryptic message.
It sounded like a poem, although not one Mr. Yoo or his friends had ever heard of. He was prepared to laugh it off, until he discovered that no one else had received the same message.
“That’s when I realized something was going to happen,” he said.
A week later, police arrived at his door in the northeastern Chinese city where Mr. Yoo, a South Korean missionary, had lived untroubled by authorities for years in a country where proselytizing by foreigners is, officially, illegal.
China is turning a blind eye no longer. The knock on Mr. Yoo’s door two years ago marked the beginning of a quiet forced evacuation of foreign missionaries, including hundreds of South Koreans, some of whom have worked to train and convert Chinese, and others who have helped Christian defectors from North Korea.
Those who remain live in mounting fear that they will be next, as China’s new president Xi Jinping seeks to rid the country of foreign influences and effectively nationalize Christian churches to bring them under state control.
“This crackdown, and the people being deported, has intensified starting from May,” said Rev. Peter Jung, director of Justice For North Korea, which supports North Korean defectors. And, he said, “the number of missionaries getting arrested has increased.”
The eviction of missionaries is in some ways a mark of China’s own perceived global strength, as an increasingly confident Beijing seeks to define China, an atheist state with government-run churches, on its own terms. Yet it also threatens to revive a point of conflict between China and Western nations, which have long criticized the Communist country for its refusal to allow free pursuit of religion.
Conditions in China have never been easy for foreign missionaries, and most try to keep a low profile. They work for so many different organizations and denominations that numbers are hard to come by. But from interviews with nearly a dozen former and active missionaries, experts and academics it’s clear at least hundreds – perhaps nearly 1,000 – have been forced out of China. In early 2013, at the peak, China was home to some 2,000 to 4,000 missionaries from South Korea alone; U.S. missionaries made up large numbers as well.
The forced departures form the background to the detention a little more than two weeks ago of Kevin and Julia Garratt, a Canadian Christian couple who had run a coffee shop in Dandong, a Chinese city on the North Korean border. Chinese authorities have accused them of stealing state secrets, but said little about what they have done wrong. Canadian officials believe their detention is likely China’s response to allegations of Chinese espionage in North America, including by a Canadian immigrant who is accused of co-ordinating hacking attacks to steal U.S. fighter jet secrets.
Yet the Garratts also stood at a dangerous nexus of issues that stir Chinese suspicion, by virtue of their personal faith, their humanitarian work with North Korea and the donations from Canadian churchgoers that supported them. That background almost certainly attracted the attention of authorities, though it may not be the primary reason for the couple’s detention.
‘It’s extremely sensitive’
China is North Korea’s closest ally, but the two nuclear powers still operate with great of mutual suspicion, and the Garratts live in a place that is the focus of intense Chinese military and intelligence scrutiny. Some of that is directed at Christian missionaries who play a critical role in the underground railroad that secrets North Korean defectors out of China.
“If you are a North Korean in China, the only place where you can realistically be given food and shelter is a church,” said Andrei Lankov, a Russian scholar and expert on North Korea. Often, that means the involvement of missionaries, who “actively proselytize among the North Korean refugees,” and train them in spreading Christianity inside North Korea.
The Chinese pressure on missionaries, however, extends far beyond the North Korean border, suggesting Beijing’s chief motivation is concern about religion.
“One of the aims of Xi Jinping’s policies is to get rid of all missionaries by 2017,” said one missionary who continues to work in north-eastern China.
Such a claim is impossible to verify. Mr. Xi, the Chinese president, has publicly said no such thing. But fears in the missionary community of a coming clean sweep offer a window into the degree of alarm that has spread. The missionary asked The Globe to reveal no potentially identifying details, including his age or nationality, how much time he and his wife have spent in China or the nature of their work there.