Church of Almighty God Refugee Li Yanli Can Remain in Spain—But Others Cannot

After the campaign by “Bitter Winter” and others, the persecuted performer is at least temporarily safe. But her co-religionist Liu Qi was deported to China—and arrested there.

by Massimo Introvigne

Li Yanli.

Good news for Li Yanli, the Church of Almighty God devotee and performer who tried to commit suicide at Madrid Barajas airport by cutting her wrist on November 3, while she was being deported back to China. The Spanish police still wanted to take her to China after she had recovered from her wounds. However, after the campaign, relayed by several Spanish media, launched by “Bitter Winter” and the Christian group of Spanish lawyers Abogados Cristianos, which also collected 60,000 signatures for a petition, the order of deportation was suspended. After a long wait, Li Yanli had another interview on November 21, and on 22, shortly after 7 pm, she was informed by the police that she could stay in Spain, and that the Asylum and Refugee Office had agreed to further process her asylum application.

While this is a welcome development and a victory for “Bitter Winter,” Abogados Cristianos, and the thousands who supported Li Yanli, some of her co-religionists were less fortunate. Li Guiyuan, whom “Bitter Winter” also mentioned in its article of November 4, had his asylum interview on November 11. On November 14, UNHCR, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, issued a favorable report to the Spanish Asylum and Refugee Office requesting that Li Guiyuan’s application should be subject to an in-depth analysis under the regular procedure. His lawyer helped him to appeal on November 16, and UNHCR issued another report to support Li Guiyuan again.

Nonetheless, the Spanish Asylum and Refugee Office rejected his application, and Li Guiyuan received a deportation notice. The notice said that Li Guiyuan had only two choices: either he bought his own ticket to a third-party country, or he would be deported back to China. To avoid going to China, Li Guiyuan bought a ticket to a South American country, where his position remains uncertain.

Much worse was the fate of 32-year-old Liu Qi, whom Spain forcibly deported to China. Obviously, the Spanish authorities believed there were no risks for him there, ignoring a significant academic and legal literature and the decisions of dozens of courts of law throughout the world, which have consistently maintained that being a member of The Church of Almighty God in China is enough to be arrested. This is even more certain after the devotee has requested asylum abroad, which is regarded as an act damaging the international reputation of the Chinese government by implying that it does not guarantee freedom of religion or belief.

On November 20, 2023, after he had been deported to China, Liu Qi was arrested and his current whereabouts are unknown. Li Yanli, Li Guiyuan, and Liu Qi are all Church of Almighty God (CAG) members who sought asylum in Spain. It should by now be crystal clear to Spanish and other authorities that CAG members who are refused asylum and deported back to China are arrested there and most likely detained for several years and tortured. Some may even be killed.

“Thanks to the help of my lawyer and the media,” Li Yanli told “Bitter Winter,” “I was not arrested along with Liu Qi. I can’t imagine what he is going through now. What I can do is pray for him silently.” Li Yanli was crying while she spoke. “Actually, I was ready to die before the second deportation began. I knew that the CCP government would use extremely despicable means to torture me and would force me to sell out my brothers and sisters. Since such an outcome is inevitable, I just wanted to die. But when I read the letter from Polonia Castellanos the Spanish Christian lawyer asking me not to do anything to hurt myself again, I thought there was God’s intention behind it. Then the desire for life began to ignite in my heart. I am only thirty years old after all, so I want to live.”

Li Yanli after she was allowed to enter Spain.

Li Yanli had an unforgettable experience in the detention center at Madrid-Barajas Airport for 30 days. “Tension, agony, depression, despair… What happened to me in that month tormented me both physically and mentally, making me exhausted. For the first time, I got so close to death. I spent every minute each day in extreme suffering.” Li Yanli became emotional again, telling us, “I will never forget the moment when one flight attendant told me to get off the plane before it took off. I just couldn’t believe that I was able to avoid being deported back to China at the last minute and remained in Spain. Thank God for giving me a second life. I would also like to thank Polonia Castellanos, Abogados Cristianos, and the human rights activist Li Yuan. I also want to thank and all the media who keep an eye on my case and help me get signatures from more than 60,000 petitioners. It was their efforts and dedication that saved my life and prevented a tragedy from happening. I am so grateful to them.”

Li Yanli also expressed special thanks to “Bitter Winter.” “I know many read the ‘Bitter Winter’ article and many readers signed petitions for me. Without their care and dedication, I would not be where I am today,” Li Yanli said.

After nine years of fleeing overseas due to religious persecution, Li Yanli finally found a temporarily safe place to stay. However, many more CAG members escaping overseas are still in danger. They made detours to many countries, but none of them was willing to be their recipient country. Under the pressure from the CCP, some countries even tried to deport them back to China. Their situation is alarming.

Li Yanli concluded: “I am away from danger for the time being, but unfortunately some brothers and sisters were sent back to China. The only thing I can do is pray more for them. Some brothers and sisters who fled to other countries also have no place to stay. They are exposed to the danger of being deported at any time. I hope more people can pay attention to the situation of the CAG Christians who have fled overseas. For the persecuted CAG Christians, your kind action may be of great help and even save their lives.”

A clandestine CAG meeting in China, by an anonymous CAG artist.

That just being a member of the CAG, not necessarily a missionary or a leader, leads to arrest and worse has been proved through hundreds of Chinese courts’ published decisions. Objections to granting asylum to CAG members have been debunked by both scholars and courts of law in most democratic countries. On July 27, 2021, the United Nations Committee Against Torture (CAT) rendered a decision against Switzerland, which had tried to deport a CAG member, to whom asylum had been denied, to China. The CAT ruled that CAG members are “at risk of torture” in China and should not be deported there.

That deportation by authorities in democratic countries who refuse to believe that CAG members will be arrested and tortured if sent back to China is a tragic mistake is demonstrated inter alia by one of the cases that got some media attention, which involved a female CAG member called Wang Xiumei. The Swiss Federal Court confirmed on January 23, 2017, judgements by lower courts that denied asylum to Wang and ordered her deported. She was forcibly brought back to China and tried to hide, but was arrested and sentenced by the People’s Court of Linshu County on February 9, 2018 to three and a half years in jail. The decision was published and confirmed beyond any possible doubt that deporting back CAG members to China violates the principle of non-refoulement.

As a recent United Nations document reiterates, “The prohibition of refoulement is absolute and non-derogable under international human rights and refugee law. States are obliged not to remove any individual from their territory when there are substantial grounds to believe the person could be subjected to serious human rights violations in the State of destination.”