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Court Nixes Religion Test Used in Immigration Trial

(CN) - A Chinese man who says he was persecuted in his home country for practicing Christianity got a second chance at asylum in the United States. In 2005, an immigration judge had rejected Lei Li's petition because Li incorrectly answered "basic" questions about Christianity.

Li claims he had to flee China after he was arrested and beaten for hosting an underground Christian church in his home. An immigration judge, and later the Board of Immigration Appeals, denied Li's applications for asylum and withholding of removal because he appeared to know little about the Christian religion.

The 9th Circuit ruled Wednesday, however, that the judge lacked the evidence to make such a call.

To bolster her finding that Li was evasive, inconsistent and lacked of documentary proof of his Christian beliefs, the immigration judge pointed to the fact that Li thought Thanksgiving was a Christian holiday and that he had scant knowledge about the differences between the Old and New Testaments.

Li claims that he became a Christian on a business trip to Korea in 1999. After returning to China, he began hosting an underground church in his house.

Authorities arrested Li in 2001 and held him for 19 days. They beat him, and he lost his job upon release from police custody, Li claims. He came to the U.S. on a visitor visa, but violated the visa by working.

Li applied for asylum in 2003 and filed a petition for withholding from removal under the Convention Against Torture.

If Li's understanding that Thanksgiving is a Christian holiday is proof that he is not really a Christian, he is "in good company," the federal appeals panel in Pasadena found.

President Washington had declared the holiday to be a "day of public prayer to acknowledge almighty God" in his 1789 "Thanksgiving Proclamation," Senior Circuit Judge Alfred Goodwin wrote for the three-judge panel.

"Of course, the original source of the Thanksgiving holiday was a celebration by the pilgrims, a sect of Christians that had escaped religious persecution in Europe," Goodwin wrote. "Millions of native-born American Christians undoubtedly think of Thanksgiving as a Christian holiday. Although possibly showing some confusion about the holiday, Li ultimately limited his statement by noting that Thanksgiving was not a 'pure holy religious holiday.'"

The immigration judge also made much of the fact that Li could only say that the Old Testament was written in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek, but knew nothing more of the differences between the two.

This, too, did not prove Li's alleged evasion, the three-judge panel found.

"Against these points, in describing his conversion to and practice of Christianity, Li cited his belief that Jesus came to save people from sin, that he willingly died on the cross, that he rose from the dead on the third day, that 40 days later he ascended into heaven, and that, in this way, he 'save[s] our lives,'" Goodwin wrote. "Li rejected the Chinese government's officially sanctioned churches as having a 'different lord than we do ... [t]heir lord is the government, not God.' Li says his pastor teaches 'as long as you believe in God, belie[ve] Jesus, we're all brothers and sisters.'"

Even without physical documents to prove his conversion, Li described the date and circumstances of his conversion and has been going to a Christian church since he arrived in Los Angeles in August 2001, the court found. Li also knows the name and address of that church and the pastor's name, and he testified that he celebrates Christmas and Easter, the ruling states.

The panel reversed the immigration judge's adverse credibility determination and remanded Li's case for a second look.

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