Dr. James W. Carr, who is with the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), has become an advocate for two church leaders who were arrested and imprisoned because of their faith. Carr has committed to working for the release of A Dao, the lead pastor of an unregistered church in Vietnam, and for Deacon Zhang Wen Shi, who ministered to North Koreans in China’s Changbai region.
“Deacon Zhang committed no crime and took no action against North Korea,” said Carr in a press release, “and yet he now languishes in a prison camp because the regime is terrified of religion. Sadly, Deacon Zhang is far from unique. He is one of the thousands of Christians and other religious believers held in political prison camps. In the U.S. government’s continued negotiations with the North Korean government, we must not forget about victims like Deacon Zhang.”
USCIRF Advocates for Deacon Zhang and Pastor A Dao
Zhang Wen Shi is the Chinese name of Jang Moon Seok, who is of Korean descent and a Chinese citizen. He lived in Changbai, a region in China that lies along the border of North Korea, where he ministered to North Koreans who illegally traveled back and forth between the countries to buy and sell items at Chinese markets. Working with pastor Han Chung Ryeol, Deacon Zhang shared the gospel and also provided shelter, food, clothing, and supplies to the people he met. Some trusted in Jesus, and the two ministers served believers who returned to Changbai by teaching them God’s Word and how to share the gospel with their families.
North Korean authorities kidnapped Deacon Zhang in November 2014, arresting him and sentencing him to 15 years in prison. Pastor Han, whose story has been dramatized by Voice of the Martyrs, was killed 15 months later. His body was found in the Changbai Mountains with multiple knife and axe wounds.
In January 2020, Open Doors released its latest World Watch List, which categorizes the top 50 countries in the world where Christians face the worst persecution. North Korea made the number one spot for the eighteenth year in a row. According to Open Doors,
If North Korean Christians are discovered, they are deported to labor camps as political criminals or even killed on the spot. Driven by the state, Christian persecution in North Korea is extreme and meeting other Christians to worship is nearly impossible unless it’s done in complete secrecy.
According to USCIRF’S own report, the North Korean government is especially hostile to Christianity, but looks down on any type of religious faith: “Anyone caught practicing religion or even suspected of harboring religious views in private is subject to severe punishment, including arrest, torture, imprisonment, and execution.”
The other man Carr is “adopting” is A Dao, the lead pastor of Montagnard Evangelical Church of Christ in Vietnam. Authorities arrested the Protestant pastor in August 2016 after he returned from an international conference. In April 2017, A Dao was sentenced to five years in prison.
Vietnam ranks number 21 on Open Doors’ latest World Watch List on account of “Communist suspicion, tribal tensions.” Says Open Doors, “Christians in Vietnam are targeted by both the government and, especially in rural contexts, tribal leaders. The government has some level of tolerance for Christian groups, particularly Catholics, but if any believers are deemed to be politically active, they can be imprisoned.”
USCIRF says that A Dao had advocated for religious freedom on behalf of his congregation, and religious freedom was a subject of the conference he attended before being arrested, supposedly for trying to help people illegally leave the country. Authorities reportedly tortured A Dao when interrogating him and the pastor has continued to receive “frequent beatings” while in prison. His health is suffering as a result, and his family had to sell their land and move in with relatives, his wife living separately from their children.
Said Carr, “Nobody should be arrested simply because they led an unregistered house of worship or attended an international conference. USCIRF urges the government of Vietnam to release Pastor A Dao early as an act of compassion.”