We’ve detected that you’re using Internet Explorer. Please consider updating to a more modern browser to ensure the best user experience on our website.

Christian Pastor and U.S. Permanent Resident from North Carolina Wrongfully Convicted and Imprisoned in China


CeCe Heil

November 16, 2018

6 min read

Persecuted Church



On March 5, 2017, Pastor John (Sanqiang) Cao, a 59-year-old Christian pastor and humanitarian worker, was arrested and thrown into prison by Chinese security agents in Yunnan province, China, as China continues its crackdown on Christians. Pastor John is a U.S. permanent resident from Greensboro, North Carolina, who has lived out his Christian faith for the last 30 years by serving people in the U.S., China, and Burma (Myanmar).

In his 20s, Pastor John converted to Christianity; and after coming to the United States, he attended a seminary in New York. In 1988, Pastor John married his American wife and North Carolina native, Jamie Powell. Together, they have two sons (both U.S. citizens) and reside in North Carolina, where Pastor John Cao has served as pastor to two Chinese-American congregations.

In addition to pastoring churches in the U.S., Pastor John has worked in Central and Southern China for over two decades, establishing Bible schools focused on education and mission work. In 2013, Pastor John started providing humanitarian aid to the Wa people in Northern Burma near the Burma-China border. Through his efforts, the Wa people were supplied with food and basic necessities, as this region is severely impoverished. In addition to providing simple necessities, Pastor John began to establish schools in 2014 to serve students from this disadvantaged area and give them a chance at obtaining an education and bettering their lives. Remarkably, in just three years, 16 schools were built, serving over 2,000 students.

Pastor John’s wonderful and incredible work in China and Burma is a testament to his character as a kind and loving man. Pastor John’s son, Amos, describes his father as a man with “a magnetic presence that [makes] him a natural teacher. He loves telling self-deprecating bilingual jokes, and ran a website that explained English idioms in Chinese.” One example of Pastor John’s humor comes from a letter he wrote: “I traveled at least 5,000 miles, mostly by train, hard-seat class or bus. . . . Praise the Lord, He has sustained me and kept me in good shape. I lost five pounds!”

Pastor John’s deep love for people was also displayed in 2008 and 2015 when earthquakes hit the Sichuan province in China and then Nepal: Pastor John “flew in to help victims, his fellow missionaries said, buying clothes for them even as he wore the same grey jacket and shoes for years.” Pastor John’s other son, Ben, commented, “My father always tried to save as much money as possible so he could give it away.”

Naturally, Pastor John’s work in establishing the schools in Burma required him to travel regularly between China and Burma. Pastor John has always conducted his humanitarian and mission work openly and in front of the Chinese government with no problems. And in the five years that he had been traveling from China into Burma, Pastor John had never experienced any problems with either government, and even had frequent meetings with the local National Security Police to talk about his charity work and travel to Burma.

All that changed, however, on March 5, 2017, when Pastor John was greeted by Chinese security agents as he stepped off a ferry that crosses the narrow river dividing China and Burma. The ferries operate openly and are not subject to any prosecution; but on a rare occasion, police may give a warning or impose a fine of roughly $70 as an administrative, not criminal, matter. Nonetheless, Pastor John didn’t receive a warning or a fine for using the ferry.  Instead, he was arrested, charged with organizing illegal border crossings (a charge normally used to convict human traffickers), convicted, and sentenced to seven years in prison, despite a lack of evidence to support the charges.

According to one of Pastor John’s Chinese attorneys, Li Guisheng, Pastor John is innocent. “Based on my thorough review and investigation of this case, I truly believe Pastor John Cao is innocent. . . . He was wrongfully convicted and punished for saving lives and providing education for the poor.” Li said. He further added that the conviction is not fair, just, or legal and that there was no evidence to prove the charges against Pastor John.

Li has appealed Pastor John’s unjust sentence, because, as he stated:

“[W]e think the law should not punish people like Pastor Cao who have been doing humanitarian work. . . . If the government is sincere about building the rule of law, the court should allow us to present our evidence and give us a chance to cross-examine the prosecution and their witnesses, and then set Pastor John Cao free. Unfortunately, to date we are not able to do that. The court under pressure refuses to follow the stipulated legal procedures and admit our evidence and rebuttals. Clearly we are far away even from a country with rule by law, not to mention rule of law.”

Unfortunately, the Pu’er Intermediate Court keeps delaying a ruling by extending the appeal period way beyond the statutory limit. Currently, the deadline for hearing the appeal is November 27, but it is doubtful that the appeal hearing will actually occur before that deadline if the pattern of delay continues.  Therefore, there is no end in sight for Pastor John.

Meanwhile, Pastor John has been in prison for over 20 months. He is in a 26 x 10 ft prison cell, with a dozen other prisoners who must all share the same 26 ft slab as a bed. On average, Pastor John has less than 14 meals per week.

Because of his time in prison and the harsh conditions, Pastor John has experienced significant weight loss—over 50 pounds—and other health issues, including severe back pain, headaches, and inflammation that make it difficult for him to eat. To date, he has not been allowed proper medical treatment. In addition to his concerning health issues, Pastor John is prohibited from communicating with his wife and sons.

U.S. officials have been alerted to and are concerned about Pastor John’s situation. A spokesman for the U.S. State Department stated “that Washington is ‘deeply concerned’ about [Pastor John’s] sentence and has urged China to release him as a U.S. legal permanent resident on ‘humanitarian grounds.’ [Pastor John] intends to retire and return to his family in America once he is freed.”

We agree that Pastor John must be released, and we have taken on this case to make sure justice is done. At the ACLJ, we have begun representation of Pastor John’s family, mobilizing our global resources in an effort to secure this Christian pastor’s freedom.

Pastor John should not spend one more horrible day in that prison cell simply because of his faith and desire to help others. We are actively and aggressively urging the Chinese government to release Pastor John and allow him to return home to the United States to be reunited with his wife and sons.

close player