The sons of Rev. John Sanqiang Cao are pleading with Chinese authorities to have mercy on their father.
"I would like the world to first and foremost pray for China and the Chinese government officials and their leadership to have mercy and compassion in their hearts for my father," Cao's 26-year-old son Ben told CBN News.
(Courtesy: Ben Cao)
On March 5, 2017, Rev. Cao, a US legal permanent resident, and his friend, used a makeshift bamboo raft to cross a narrow stretch of water dividing southern China and neighboring Myanmar.
"He just happens to be someone who has a lot of talents and gifts for helping other people and decided to use his life to that end," Amos Cao, John Sanqiang Cao's eldest son told the Associated Press.
Cao was reportedly taking Bibles and other materials from China into Myanmar.
"My father, being a Christian minister, he knew what he was getting himself into and he often took pride in the risk that he might one day become a martyr for his beliefs," Ben told CBN News.
This was Cao's 11th time crossing the river bringing food and other humanitarian supplies to Myanmar since 2014.
(Courtesy: Ben Cao)
"Living in China as American and the son of a pastor in China kind of has some implied risk, I think, to it," Amos admitted.
His family said the trip in March 2017 was different.
"He told us that this was going to be his last trip and that he planned on retiring soon after," Amos said.
But this time, waiting on the Chinese shores were security agents.
"It is really sad, knowing with this knowledge (that he was going to retire), it is a real shock and a blow that his last trip was the one that landed him in jail," Ben said.
Chinese authorities arrested Rev. Cao and accused him of conducting missionary work. Last month, a court sentenced him to seven years in prison for "organizing others to illegally cross the border"-- a crime Ben Cao said is "typically only given to organizers of drug and human trafficking."
"My father was doing neither of those," Ben added. "He was organizing volunteers to travel to Myanmar to teach in the schools that he was building."
Cao first became aware of the plight of minority groups in Myanmar four years ago.
"When he first realized their situation and their circumstances, he was compelled to provide humanitarian support," Ben explained to CBN News. "So he began bringing clothes and food and that mission expanded and evolved into building schools and churches for the minority groups in Myanmar."
Cao, who married Jamie Powell, a native of North Carolina, would often take his American-born sons on trips to China.
"When he came to the States to study ministry and was ordained as a minister, he made it his religious mission to spread the gospel," Ben said.
It was a desire rooted in his upbringing in China.
(Courtesy: Ben Cao)
"My father, who came from a humble background in China, growing up in the 1960s and early 70s through the Cultural Revolution, has always identified with people in poverty and people of minority groups," Ben said of his 58-year-old father.
It was during those trips to China that the brothers understood the risks their father would take to share hope with people.
"We had traveled with him to China many times and seen that he was being constantly monitored," Amos told CBN News. "He let us know that there was always going to be some small risk of him being arrested, but he felt he was doing nothing wrong. He always felt that he was operating within the legal boundaries of China."
"In regards to whether or not my dad was ever been approached by the Chinese government or if our family had ever had a dialogue with them, the answer is: 'Yes. All the time,'" added Amos.
Rev. Cao had been crossing the border between China and Myanmar for three years without any incident.
"He was operating under the blessing of the Chinese government and even though he technically broke a law involving the border, he was under the impression that he had government permission to be making those trips to and from the border," Ben insisted.
Ben and Amos Cao told CBN News that all their father every wanted to do was to serve the less fortunate, and that nothing he did was illegal or political in nature.
(Courtesy: Ben Cao)
"We feel the charges brought against him are not giving credit to his work and what his purpose is," Ben Cao said."We would like to see at least a reduction in his sentence, and ideally we would like his unconditional release from jail."
"A lot of things have happened in the last few months that are very troubling for the future of Christianity in China," said Kristina Arriaga, the vice chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Arriaga joined several other experts recently to discuss rising religious persecution in China at a forum sponsored by DC-based Heritage Foundation.
China watchers say that restrictions on religious freedom have dramatically increased since China's president Xi Jinping took power.
"Unfortunately, the space for practicing faith seems to be closing in China," said Olivia Enos, a policy analyst with the Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy. "It seems to be closing in China as president Xi Jingping continues his consolidation of power."
Last week, authorities in Henan province tore down crosses atop several churches after claims that the structures themselves were built illegally.
The move came on the heels of a government order forcing online retailers to stop selling the Bible.
"The Chinese have doubled down on their repression stating that it is ok to be a person of faith and to practice one's faith as long as one does it the Chinese way or the socialist way," Arriaga told attendees at the forum. "This comes from the Chinese arrogant attitude that our rights come from the state."
The Chinese government released a new white paper this month stating that all religious groups must be "subordinate to and serve the overall interests of the nation and the Chinese people" and to further "support the leadership of the CPC (Communist Party of China) and the socialist system, to uphold and follow the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics."
Arriaga says such statements are "preposterous" and further warns that the Chinese government is on an aggressive campaign to "Sinicize" Christianity by changing the faith in China into a Chinese Christianity, with socialism and support for the Communist Party as core values.
And now it appears the government is also going after Chinese Christians who engage in missionary activity outside the country.
A U.S. State Department spokesman told Associated Press that Washington is "deeply concerned" about Rev. Cao's sentence and has urged the government there to release him on "humanitarian grounds."
"I just want to see my dad released and freed of this charge for something that he is not guilty of," said son Amos.