The Common Good

Refugee Finds His Own Church ‘Sanctuary’

HIGHLAND PARK, N.J. — The mix of the modern and the medieval in the life of restricted life of Saul Timisela is dizzying.

Global positioning satellites track every move the Indonesian immigrant makes while he seeks refuge in a church, claiming the centuries-old right of sanctuary from the reach of secular authority —  in his case, the federal Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

To ICE spokesman Harold Ort, Timisela is an "immigration fugitive" who's trying to avoid deportation. But to the Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale, pastor of the Reformed Church of Highland Park, Timisela is "walking with Christ into a conflict with power."

"It's an appropriate thing to do during Lent as we prepare to remember Christ who walks against the powers to his own demise," said Kaper-Dale, himself the possible target of prosecution for opening his church to Timisela and, possibly, other Indonesian Christians fearful of returning to their homeland.

Timisela and eight of his countrymen wear GPS devices on their ankles as an "alternative to detention" device, but he is the only one to take refuge in Kaper-Dale's church.

About 70 other Christian Indonesians in the area also face deportation because requests for asylum based on religious prosecution were denied after they were filed too late.

"It is still dangerous for them," said Kaper-Dale, citing a report from Human Rights Watch that concluded that last year "incidents of religious violence got more deadly and more frequent, as Islamist militants mobilized mobs to attack religious minorities with impunity."

Most Indonesian immigrants at the center of the standoff between the federal government and the Highland Park church came to the U.S. with tourist visas following the 1998 collapse of the presidency of Indonesian leader Suharto, who himself came to power in the 1960s in a wave of murderous anti-communist violence.

Kaper-Dale says 1,700 Christian churches were bombed or burned in sectarian violence since 1996.

"Think of how the bombing of one church in Alabama changed the heart of this country during the Civil Rights movement — then think of it happening 1,700 times and the world not noticing," he said.

Timisela says he fled after his brother-in-law, a pastor, was killed during an attack on his church in 1998.

"The embassy in Jakarta was handing out tourist visas like candy," Kaper-Dale said, and officials there knew "they were not coming here to see the Statue of Liberty."

The plight of Indonesian Christian immigrants has taken odd turns in the last decade. Many overstayed visas. They also failed to file for asylum in time, within a year.

Still, they obtained documents allowing them to work. Timisela himself worked in 2001 for a contractor helping to clean out Ground Zero, an occupation that, he says, caused liver and heart problems.

In 2003, the federal government required men on temporary visas coming from the largest Muslim countries to register or be considered "terrorist fugitives." Kaper-Dale said he encouraged the nearly 100 Indonesians who held services in his church to register.

In 2006, immigration officials raided a housing complex nearby and deported 37 men. Kaper-Dale took in many of their families and began a quest to keep them here. By 2009, he thought he had reached an understanding with immigration officials that would allow them to stay while they appealed their cases.

Kaper-Dale lobbied for a new law — now co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., — to permit Indonesians to reopen asylum cases.

In November, a number of Kaper-Dale's congregation were threatened with deportation, including Timisela and eight others who were fitted with the GPS ankle bracelets -- "shackles," the minister calls them. One has already been deported.

"Others may seek sanctuary, I don't know," said Kaper-Dale, who recently met with immigration officials in what he called a "disappointing" meeting.

"What we have learned is those who obey the government and register are now more likely to be deported than those who hide," the minister said.

Meanwhile, he said, sentries are posted 24 hours a day at the church. If immigration officials show up, he said he and other parishioners will do everything they can "peacefully and nonviolently" to protect Timisela.

Immigration officials have said the government does not routinely "conduct enforcement actions at sensitive locations, including places of worship."

For now, Timisela spends his days in a Sunday school classroom, containing a small bed and a rack on which to dry his laundry. The room is decorated with cards from children expressing their love.

"It is my home," he said, "and I love it."

Bob Braun writes for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J. Via RNS.

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