(HIGHLAND PARK, N.J.) — This Christmas marks Day 295 for a central New Jersey church playing host to a group of Indonesians living within its sanctuary.
Five Christian men remain at the church, hoping its brick walls and their own strong faith keep them from being deported. Three others from their families and congregation also immediately face being sent back.
On Monday night, these men, with their wives and American-born children, will enjoy a Christmas Eve feast by dining on traditional dishes from their homeland. Exotic aromas will waft through the Reformed Church of Highland Park’s neighborhood, as the men barbecue marinated chicken kebobs to be served with a cumin and garlic peanut sauce. As in years past, the woman prepare their Dutch influenced Southeast Asian holiday delights including tinorangsa, pork wrapped in collard greens seasoned with lemongrass, ginger, chili peppers and other spices, or kue nastar, traditional cookies baked with the dough folded over diced pineapple.
These savory and sweet Indonesian foods strongly contrast with the congregants bitter memories of their homeland.
All say that they and their loved ones have been persecuted in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, because of their religion and for some due to their Chinese ancestry.
In May 1998, Indonesian dictator Suharto resigned the presidency following violent and deadly student protests. In the chaos that followed the strongman’s fall, mobs fought in the streets, entire neighborhoods burned and thousands died in this former Dutch colony. Gangs of radicalized Muslim extremists targeted Christians and other religious minorities throughout the country.
The Reformed Church’s pastor, Seth Kaper-Dale, leads the effort to keep the Indonesians from being deported by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). “We’ve been offering sanctuary, which for us is the ultimate form of non-violent resistance to the immigration laws. It’s time that these people, the fathers should be granted stays of removal,” he says.
“It’s dragged on for a very long time, without getting the action we need, for the five here in the sanctuary and the others living in risk outside of the church who can be picked up at any time,” Kaper-Dale added.
This is true. ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations unit, ERO, has the power to go into the church, despite its sanctuary, and take the men into custody.
On Friday, ICE released its deportation statistics for its fiscal year 2012. ERO “removed” more than 400,000 people. These show that 55 percent of them were convicted of felonies or misdemeanors– almost doubling the number in 2008.
Kaper-Dale reflects, “In this season we talk about how there’s ‘no room in the inn’. Well there’s no room in this inn we call America for immigrant children or their parents. Until this inn opens its doors further, The Reformed Church of Highland Park will continue to provide sanctuary for the fathers.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Kathryn Vasel, CNN
Elise Labott, Kevin Liptak and Patrick Oppmann, CNN