The Freedom to Worship

“Even if we have a lot to eat, and a place to sleep,” says Mark Lee, ”in China, there is no freedom. The government controls everything, including your religion. You have to do everything according to their ideology.

“In China,” he adds sadly, “you cannot believe in God in public.”

Photograph: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images, Reuters.

The systematic persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in China has a long and well-documented history. However, the rise of General Secretary of the Communist Party Xi Jinping in 2012, coupled with a rise in the number of practicing Christians, has brought a corresponding increase of religious suppression in China. 

Perhaps even more sinister—and eerily reminiscent of the Mao era—the government is now policing Christian churches as a way to control the “hearts and minds” of their adherents.

“We could practice Christianity in secret, but then it became more difficult,” explains Mark. “But in America, you can freely worship. Here you can go to church every Sunday and have no fear of arrest.”

Mark and his wife came to the U.S. seven years ago searching for a freedom most Americans take for granted. Mark’s wife was granted asylum in 2016. She then filed an asylee relative petition for her husband. 

Still very unfamiliar with U.S. asylum law, they went looking for an attorney to help them. They found one: a hero of Tiananmen Square, a democratic activist famous throughout the exiled community, now an attorney practicing in New York. 

Mark couldn’t believe this larger-than-life figure was willing to take his humble case. He thought he was the luckiest man in the world.  

“This man fought the communists,” explains Mark. “Of course, I believed everything he said to me.” He sighs heavily and shakes his head. “I was very naïve, but I admired him so much.”

Again and again, the attorney told Mark that his case was very difficult and would require additional fees. Again and again, Mark would find the money to pay him the fees he demanded. He also gave the attorney ample evidence both of the persecution he had endured in China and the veracity of his marriage. 

Mark and his wife had met in 2006, married in 2010 and had been together since then. “We love each other,” he says solemnly. “We worship God together.”

But the lawyer did not submit any of the couple’s evidence to the court in time.  

At the end of this long and fruitless period, Mark had spent over $8,000. He was out of funds. The asylum office had denied his claim and referred him to Immigration Court. He was now waiting for his final hearing that would decide if he would be able to stay with his wife in the U.S. But while Mark’s petition for asylum had been pending for two years, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was making plans to deport him from the country.

Sign on the door of New York JFON’s Chinatown Clinic

Mark’s situation was dire. He was desperately searching for a nonprofit organization to help him when he met TJ Mills, managing attorney for New York JFON. TJ is also a consulting attorney for National JFON and has a tremendous amount of experience in asylum and immigration law.

When TJ agreed to take over his case, says Mark, “I finally saw a ray of hope.”  

TJ immediately asked U.S. Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS) to expedite the asylee petition given Mark’s pending removal proceedings. They then brought Mark in for an interview to focus on the legitimacy of his marriage.

“Finally, his asylee petition was approved,” says TJ, “and we then asked the court to terminate his removal proceedings.”

For Mark and his wife, it was a happy ending to a scary and stressful time. Mark gives the credit to his JFON attorney for his new sense of security and well-being.

“I ask a lot of questions,” he confides, “and TJ answers all of them. He is conscientious, hard-working, but also kind and patient. He is a terrific lawyer.”

TJ smiles. “They’re good people,” he says of Mark and his wife. “I’m glad we could help them.”

Now that Mark is out of danger from deportation, he will be eligible for a green card in December. Mark has a master’s degree in software engineering, and he hopes to work in a related field, if possible. Meanwhile, he continues to be an active volunteer in his church and expresses an earnest desire to help at the JFON Chinatown clinic.

“’Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.'” Mark wrote in a letter of thanks to us recently. “I think Justice for Our Neighbors not only listens to the words of God, but does what God asks.” 


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