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For more than five years, Xiaodong Li and about half a dozen friends gathered weekly in their hometown of Ningbo, China, to study the Bible and sing hymns. Then one Sunday morning in April 1995, in the middle of one of the services inside Li's apartment, three cops stormed in, handcuffed Li, and escorted him to the local police station.

The officers grabbed his hair and kicked his legs, forcing him to kneel. They hit and shocked him with an electronic black baton until he confessed two hours later to organizing an underground church. Later, they locked him inside a windowless, humid cell with six other inmates until his friend and uncle bailed him out five days later. After his release, police forced him to clean public toilets 40 hours a week without pay. He lost his job as a hotel spokesman.

Li, 22 at the time, likely faced two years in prison. A court hearing was set for later that year. Li began plotting an escape. He applied for a visa. Unaware of Li's looming trial, a government agency issued him a passport. And on November 4, 1995, Li left the country.

Two months later, a Carnival Cruise Lines ship docked in Miami. Li, a food server on board, walked off and never returned. He moved to Houston, hoping to go back to his homeland when China's government eased religious restrictions. Instead, conditions worsened. His friend was imprisoned for participating in their underground church. And police interrogated Li's family, who still live in China, after receiving Bibles, religious magazines, and newspapers that Li had sent them.

In 1999, Li applied for asylum on the grounds that the Chinese government had persecuted him for his religious beliefs. He missed the application deadline, but an immigration judge agreed with his arguments, ...

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