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“All human beings are born free and equal

in dignity and rights.”

- Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Pastor John Cao


Detained Since: March 5, 2017.

Charges: Organizing illegal border crossings.

Sentence: Seven years in prison.

Biography: John Cao is a Protestant pastor and humanitarian worker that, in addition to pastoring churches in the United States, has established Bible schools in central and southern China, concentrating on education and missionary work. Since 2013, he has focused on humanitarian work in Wa State, Burma, including building schools, alleviating poverty, increasing medical access, and campaigning against drug use. He and other volunteers have built 16 schools with funds raised from churches in China as part of this work. Mr. Cao regularly travelled between China and Burma, crossing a narrow river that divides the two countries. These journeys used local ferries, as Mr. Cao could not use his passport to cross the border, nor could he apply for an educational border pass.

On 5 March 2017, the Menglian County Police of Yunnan Province intercepted John Cao and his colleague, Jing Ruxia, while they were crossing the Sino-Burma border on the basis of a warrant issued by the Menglian County Public Security Bureau. He was formally arrested on 28 March 2017. In March 2018, he was sentenced to seven years imprisonment for allegedly “organizing illegal border crossings.” On 25 July 2019, the Pu’er Intermediate Court upheld his conviction and sentence. His lawyer was told of the hearing only days before it was scheduled and was denied contact with Cao before the appeal was heard. Cao was originally imprisoned in Menglian Detention Centre, but was later transferred to a prison in Kunming.

Human rights advocates believe that John Cao was selectively targeted because of his religious affiliation or missionary work. Although many people reportedly cross the Sino-Burma border without proper visas, only Cao and Ruxia—also a Christian—were detained. In September 2019, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that the arrest violated the freedom from discrimination based on religion under Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and forwarded Cao’s case to the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. Moreover, there is no evidence to support the charge against Cao of “organizing illegal border crossings”—a charge usually applied to human traffickers—or the unusually harsh prison sentence (Ruxia was released after several months).

Mr. Cao, who is 60 years old, has endured poor conditions in prison for the past two years. Cao has experienced significant weight loss, severe back pain, headaches, and inflammation. Mr. Cao has been denied medical treatment, forcing him to pull out his decaying teeth.

Advocacy Partner: U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom

Past Advocate: Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-MO, Ret.)