HIGHLAND PARK, NEW JERSEY — Since March, a New Jersey church has offered sanctuary to a growing number of Indonesian Christians who face immediate deportation. They say they fear persecution in Indonesia, a mainly Muslim country where the U.N. and human rights groups say violence against religious minorities has flared again in recent years.
Eight men and one woman are now living in the Reformed Church of Highland Park. They sing and pray, work in the church garden and help in the church café. But they cannot leave. They took shelter there after receiving final deportation orders that make them subject to immediate arrest. Several are still wearing ankle monitors placed on them by U.S. immigration officers.
Co-Pastor Seth Kaper-Dale says the church could not refuse to help its Indonesian members, who came to the U.S. more than 10 years ago on tourist visas, fleeing anti-Christian violence.
"From 1996 to 2003, a thousand churches were bombed, burned or destroyed in Indonesia,” he said. “And if you’re ethnic Chinese and Christian like almost all our people in this group, you’re particularly in harm’s way. We have people with stories of horrible traumas, and there are people who are damaged enough that they shouldn’t be going back.”
The Indonesians’ immigration problems began in 2003, when in response to the September 11 terror attacks, the U.S. government created a registration program for non-citizen men from predominantly Muslim nations. The Indonesian Christian men who reported as required, Kaper-Dale said, became subject to fast-track review because they had not applied for asylum within the one-year time limit.
Many had worked, paid taxes and begun families in the United States. Kaper-Dale said their futures are bleak in Indonesia, where deportees from the U.S. are regarded with official suspicion.
“Some face a whole lot of interrogation and then can never rebound from it,” he said. “We have somebody who was deported three and a-half years ago, still doesn’t have work papers or driver’s license. He is an undocumented worker in the land of his birth.”
U.S.-citizen children born before 2006 whose deportee parents take them to Indonesia to live will need to renew their Indonesian visas every two or three months, and will have to do so by traveling to other countries, such as nearby Singapore. However, Kaper-Dale notes that regular foreign travel of any distance is beyond the means of the affected families.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency says it does not conduct routine enforcement at “sensitive locations” such as places of worship, and is reviewing the Indonesian cases individually. Legislation now in the U.S. Congress also could permit the fugitives to re-open their asylum claims.
Nine-year-old Jocelyn Pangemanan, the daughter of one of the men living at the church, has never been to Indonesia. “It’s a hard decision,” she said at a rally at the church. “I can’t leave my mom here, and [I can’t] let my dad go to Indonesia by himself.”
About 30 people attended the rally and a short march through Highland Park’s downtown. A police car promised by the city escorted them. The fugitives marched, too, waving small American flags, confident they would not be arrested during a march for religious freedom.
Then they returned to the church - a sanctuary, they say, that has become a home.