In a low voice, Saul Timisela described how a Muslim mob in his native Indonesia burned the church where his brother-in-law was pastor, hacked him to death, and scattered pieces of his body on the altar and throughout the structure.
Rovni Rawantko recalled riding a bus when it was stopped and boarded by armed men who asked to see the passengers’ identity papers.
Seeing he was Christian, one of the men told Rawantko, “Give me everything you have or we could kill you.” He complied, but as the men left with his possessions, they slapped him.
Against this backdrop, they and other Christians fled their native Indonesia for the United States in the 1990s and early 2000s, many settling in central New Jersey where they found jobs and began raising families.
Having overstayed their tourist visas, however, the Timisela and Rawantko are among a group of nine men and two women being given sanctuary in the Reformed Church of Highland Park. There they live in Sunday school rooms and cannot leave for fear of being picked up for deportation by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE traditionally will not enter a house of worship providing sanctuary.
“There were literally tens of thousands killed in the riots and attacks,” said the church’s co-pastor Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale, who has been advocating for the Indonesians for about a decade. Anti-Christian riots coincided with the fall in 1998 of the Suharto regime in the heavily Muslim country.
“Over a thousand churches were burned between 1997 and 2003 and an untold number of villages destroyed,” said Kaper-Dale. “Everyone in our community has horrible stories of violence done to them. Some have friends and relatives who didn’t live.”
The pastor spoke to NJJN on Aug. 7 after spending a day in Washington at meetings at the White House and Congress.
The Indonesians’ quest to be allowed to stay in the United States has resonated in the Jewish community, which has rallied to their cause.
Philip Cantor, chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County, voiced concerns with the ICE, which, advocates say, has denied the Indonesian men and women a fair hearing.
“We do not understand the selective enforcement and are hopeful our local clergy in conjunction with our elected officials will achieve a satisfactory resolution,” Cantor said. “We support the efforts of these people to remain in the United States, where they can be free to pursue their individual and family goals and aspirations.”
Rabbi Robert Wolkoff of Congregation B’nai Tikvah in North Brunswick has spoken about the plight of the Indonesians from the pulpit and has invited Kaper-Dale to speak at a Shabbat service after the summer.
“How many times have we been taught in the Torah to be empathetic to others?” Wolkoff asked. “We as Jews should have nothing but contempt in the face of the State Department’s bureaucratic maneuvering in the face of people’s suffering.”
Kaper-Dale praised the efforts of the Jewish community, particularly Rabbi Bennett Miller of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick.
Miller contacted other clergy across the state to pull together a “small” interfaith coalition and has participated in interfaith vigils and prayer services at the church. Kaper-Dale also credits him with prodding Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) to sponsor a bill allowing the Indonesians to reopen their cases. It is a companion bill to congressional legislation sponsored by Democrats Carolyn Maloney of New York and Frank Pallone, whose NJ District 6 includes Highland Park.
“These Indonesian families sought refuge in our country to keep their families safe from harm and religious persecution, “ Lautenberg said in a statement. “America has a long history of protecting refugees from persecution, and this legislation gives these families a chance to legally seek asylum and to continue contributing to our country.”
The New Jersey State Assembly unanimously passed a resolution endorsing the federal legislation.
Miller, in whose synagogue Kaper-Dale has spoken, said for children and grandchildren of immigrants who fled anti-Semitism, “the story of the Indonesians should be intolerable.”
“This is a humanitarian issue, and we Jews know what it’s like to be persecuted and told the door of freedom is not open to you,” he said.
Dr. Joseph Cohn, a Highland Park physician and member of Anshe Emeth, has become the “sanctuary doctor,” making house calls to treat the Indonesians.
The Highland Park Minyan and Minyan Tiferet, which both use the church for services, have pitched in during phonathons and marches.
“The minyans have been very supportive,” said Harry Pangemanan, an Indonesian who had been detained by immigration authorities in Elizabeth, but was released after some negotiating by Kaper-Dale. “Every day one of them comes to the church to visit us or bring us food. Especially on Saturday after Sabbath worship they always leave us with food or money. We have to thank God for the support we get from the Jewish community. They are always on the front line in helping us.”
Pangemanan said, “On behalf of the Indonesians and myself I would like to say thank you to the Jewish community for your support.”
‘No special favors’
As ethnic Chinese Christians — who, according to Kaper-Dale, have been particularly targeted for violence — the sanctuary seekers are terrified of returning home, where the situation is still dangerous. They also don’t want to leave their wives and American-born children behind, perhaps to never see them again.
What particularly galls Kaper-Dale is that the Indonesians have not been granted asylum because of a legal glitch. They all applied — and the pastor believes they would have been given refuge — but they failed to submit their applications within a year of arrival, as was required by a little-known new law.
After the 9/11 attacks, immigration authorities required that non-citizen men from certain countries, including Indonesia, register. Women were not required to do so.
“We encouraged them to register,” said the pastor, a move that later made it easier for ICE to track them.
In 2006, ICE agents raided the homes of Indonesians living in Union and Middlesex counties, “scaling fire escapes with guns drawn, and 37 fathers were taken away in handcuffs in front of their screaming kids,” said Kaper-Dale. Most were deported, leaving behind their families. ICE is continuing to review all of these matters on a case-by-case basis. Thus far, ICE has extended a stay of removal to 27 of these individuals since the beginning of the fiscal year due to the specific circumstances of their case.
In an e-mailed response, ICE public affairs officer Harold Ort told NJJN, “As a matter of policy, ICE does not conduct enforcement actions at sensitive locations, including places of worship, unless the action involves a national security matter, imminent risk of violence or physical harm, pursuit of a dangerous felon, or the imminent destruction of evidence in an ongoing criminal case….
“ICE has recently granted an additional stay of removal in certain Indonesian cases based on individual circumstances,” Ort wrote. “Unfortunately, ICE is unable to suspend the removal or issue an indefinite order of supervision to any one class of aliens.”
Kaper-Dale said he worked out an “order of supervision” agreement with the government, allowing the Indonesians to legally live and work while their status was straightened out, with the understanding it could be rescinded at any time. In 2009, ICE chose not to renew the order and in March classified the Christians as “deportation priorities.”
“Look, we are not asking for any special favors,” said Kaper-Dale. “We just want our fair hearing on the merits of their case.”
Timisela showed up at the church on March 1, the day he was to be deported, wearing an electronic ankle bracelet. He became the first to be given sanctuary. He and other men met with NJJN at the church, where they spend their time studying, praying, and advocating for their cause. Their wives and children visit them as often as they can.
“Why does the government do this?” asked Timisela. “We are good citizens. We all worked. We paid taxes, no violence, no criminals. No trouble with the police.”
Asked what he would do once his case is resolved, Timisela tentatively said, “I will call El Al.” When asked if he meant the Israeli airline, he smiled and said, “Yes, when I get my green card I will call El Al and buy a ticket so I can visit the Holy Land.”