The daughter of jailed Chinese Protestant pastor Zhang Shaojie has arrived in the United States to raise awareness of government persecution of her father's church, according to a rights group.
Zhang Huixin, also known as Zhang Yunyun, arrived in Dallas, Texas on Tuesday along with her husband and one-year-old daughter, the U.S.-based Christian rights group ChinaAid said in a statement on its website.
The three were helped to leave China via Southeast Asia by an underground network of activists, the statement said.
"Our family has come here to raise awareness of the deteriorating situation of religious freedom in Nanle County, Henan, and in China," Zhang Yunyun told ChinaAid.
Zhang Shaojie was sentenced this month to 12 years' imprisonment by a court in Nanle county, in the central province of Henan on charges of "fraud" and "gathering a crowd to disrupt public order."
Zhang, a former president of the government-sanctioned Protestant association and adviser to the county People's Political Consultative Conference, was also ordered to pay a fine of 100,000 yuan (U.S. $16,000).
According to ChinaAid, Zhang Yunyun was "thrown out" of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing after she tried to submit a visa application there in April.
However, the U.S. government granted the family advance parole authorization following Zhang Shaojie's sentence.
The family's daring escape came after they tried to fly straight to the U.S. from Beijing on June 23, but were turned back by Chinese state security police, who said they were a risk to national security, ChinaAid said.
Zhang Yunyun said she hadn't come to the U.S. to escape persecution, however.
ChinaAid said local police had already begun a campaign of harassment against the family, which they stepped up after the sentence was announced, confiscated Zhang Yunyun's car and threatening her elderly grandparents.
ChinaAid president and founder Bob Fu said the family's escape made use of an "underground railroad" in Southeast Asia.
"Many anonymous heroes helped them along the way," Fu said Wednesday, after the family landed in Midland, Texas, where they will be supported by a Baptist church group.
"We got to Midland at around 10:30 a.m. local time, where we met Yunyun and her family, three people in all," U.S.-based family lawyer Xia Jun said.
"They were met by about 30 people from the church," he said.
Back in China, Zhang Shaojie's second daughter Zhang Lingxin said she was relieved to hear of the family's safe arrival.
Asked if the Nanle county police had come looking for Zhang Yunyun and her family, she said: "Yes, they did."
"They probably know by now [that they are in the U.S.] because people have been tweeting the news online, and they're pretty good at getting information."
She said the authorities had yet to react to the news, however. "They haven't done anything to the rest of the family yet," she said.
Meanwhile, Zhao Shaojie's wife Wang Fengrui said she was "relieved" to hear the news.
"It's been nearly a month [since I heard from them]," Wang said.
"Just now a government official I know said one thing to me. He said the county government is holding a meeting after getting a query from central government about the sentence handed down to Shaojie," Wang added.
She said Zhang hadn't wanted to appeal, however.
"He said appealing wouldn't do any good, because the sentence was a result of an order from central government," Wang said.
"But we will appeal; we have already lodged it."
Targeting organized religion
The sentence handed down to Zhang Shaojie suggests the ruling Chinese Communist Party is becoming less and less tolerant of organized religion, even in its state-approved form, rights activists said.
The Chinese authorities had been cracking down on Zhang's government-approved Nanle church for about a month before his detention last November following a land dispute that pitted the popular preacher against the county government.
The targeting of a state-approved church surprised many observers as the communist government officially allows Christians to only worship in such churches, while unregistered congregations tend to be harassed.
Church supporters say the county government reneged on an agreement to allocate Zhang's church a piece of land for the construction of a new building.
Zhang was held under criminal detention on Nov. 17, while officials later later seized control of the state-sanctioned church, sealing it off from the congregation.
Hundreds of Protestant worshipers from Shenzhen, Shanghai, Jiangsu, Hebei, Shandong, and Beijing converged on Nanle county over Christmas to show support for the church, which is a member of the Chinese Communist Party's Three-Self Patriotic Association of Protestant churches.
Some 20 members of the congregation were detained, but have mostly been released, with the exception of two preachers, whose whereabouts are unknown.
Reported by Qiao Long and Shi Shan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.