BANGKOK (AP) — More than 60 asylum-seeking members of a Chinese Christian church who were detained last week in Thailand are headed for the United States, a religious freedom advocate who has been helping them said Friday.

A colonel from the Thai police immigration division confirmed that the group left Thailand on Thursday night. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not a spokesman for his agency.

Thai police said Wednesday that the 63 members of the Shenzhen Holy Reformed Church, also known as the Mayflower Church, would be deported within a week, likely to a third country. The US embassy has declined to comment on the fate of the group, but joined representatives of the UN Refugee Agency in talks with Thai officials on the matter.

The church members, who have been in Thailand since last September, were arrested last week in the coastal city of Pattaya for overstaying their visas, fined and then taken to Bangkok, where they were detained at immigration facilities.

Bob Fu, president of ChinaAid, a Texas-based Christian human rights organization, said the group was headed for the United States and was expected to arrive in Dallas, Texas, late Friday.

“ChinaAid welcomes the landing of the persecuted Chinese ‘Mayflower Church’ for freedom in the US and we welcome Texas,” Fu said in a text message, also thanking US and Thai officials and activists. .

“We will not rest until religious freedom is fully realized in China,” he said.

Christian church organizations have been working to relocate them to Texas, lobbying for admission to the US and offering to house them.

Church members have said they faced unbearable harassment in China.

Christians in China are legally allowed to worship only in churches affiliated with religious groups controlled by the Communist Party, but independent, unregistered “house churches” were largely tolerated by authorities for decades. They have tens of millions of followers, possibly outnumbering those of the official groups.

However, in recent years, house churches have come under severe pressure, and many of the more prominent ones have been shut down. Unlike previous crackdowns, such as Beijing’s ban on Falun Gong, a spiritual movement it labels a cult, authorities have also targeted some believers who do not explicitly oppose the Chinese state.

Before their arrival in Thailand, members of the Mayflower Church fled to South Korea’s Jeju Island in October 2019 and stayed there for nearly three years. They decided to leave after it became clear that the prospects for refuge there were dim.

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