Supported by a campaign by Bitter Winter and several NGOs, the former leader of the CAG in four Chinese provinces, who escaped to the US with a false passport, has finally left jail.
Sister Zou Demei is free. This is very good news for Bitter Winter and the NGOs who supported her case and, together with the Lantos Foundation and supported by the International Religious Freedom Roundtable, wrote to President Donald J. Trump asking for her release. It is also good news for her lawyer, Mr Russell Abrutyn, who spared no efforts to secure the result. In March, the Immigration Judge had granted her withholding of removal based on his conclusion that she will be persecuted in China because she belongs to The Church of Almighty God (CAG). He found, based on statements by scholars, the human rights community, and her fellow church members, that she is in fact Zou Demei, she belongs to the CAG, and China persecutes CAG members. Although asylum in the US was not granted for a number of technical reasons, Sister Zou is allowed to remain in the country. And now she has left the jail where she had been detained in Detroit for more than two years, and is a free woman.
Ms. Zou was until 2016 the regional leader of the CAG in the four provinces of Yunnan, Guizhou, Chongqing, and Sichuan. This made her one of the top leaders of the CAG in China, and one of the most wanted by the authorities, with a substantial bounty placed on her head. As all CAG members, she destroyed all evidence of her true identity and went under the pseudonym of Lu Yao.
In 2016, Ms. Zou was informed that she was wanted not only as a leader of a banned religious movement, which was already bad enough, but on trumped up charges of espionage, which might lead to the death penalty. She managed to escape from China with the passport of another person with her picture pasted on it and reach South Korea. Since South Korea, unlike the U.S. and Canada, has not granted asylum to any CAG refugee and it was unsafe for her to live there with a false passport, she decided to move to the U.S. She landed in Detroit on January 24, 2017, where her passport was detected as false and she was arrested.
Language problems prevented her and a few co-religionists who initially tried to help her to make her case understandable to the American authorities, and her asylum request was denied on December 4, 2017, with an order that she should be deported back to China. Her appeal was rejected on May 22, 2018. On August 13, 2018, a stay of removal was granted, based on massive evidence about her identity and role in the CAG and documents about the persecution of the CAG in China. On March 18, 2019, she received permission to remain in the US.
Although Bitter Winter believes Sister Zou should have been granted asylum, we are grateful to the American authorities who prevented her deportation back to China and allowed her to remain in the U.S. “We could not have done this without the support of Bitter Winter and of so many scholars and NGOs, commented Mr. Abrutyn. I only hope that this means that other CAG members will be able to find safety and protection in the U.S. and elsewhere.”