Harry Abraham Ricky Pangemanan and Mariyana Sunarto won asylum today based on their well-founded fear of persecution for their religious practices and political opinions if they were returned to Indonesia. The couple, who have resided in New Jersey for decades and raised their two daughters here, have been seeking the right to remain permanently in the United States for close to 20 years.
Mr. Pangemanan and Ms. Sunarto have long been leaders in the Indonesian Christian community in New Jersey. They helped found and lead an Indonesian Christian congregation in the late 1990s before joining the general congregation at the Reformed Church of Highland Park. That church has since become the centerpiece of their lives. Mr. Pangemanan has twice taken sanctuary there to protect himself from threatened detention and deportation, in one case living in the church for nearly a year. The couple and their children attend services every week, sing in the choir, and cook for weekly suppers in the church’s refugee/asylee-run restaurant, the Global Grace Café. They are also anchors in the church’s community service programs. For example, Mr. Pangemanan managed the church’s extensive relief efforts after Hurricane Sandy, leading to the family’s participation in disaster-relief nationwide, and the couple provides support to more than 230 special-needs tenants living in federally supported housing in Central Jersey.
Mr. Pangemanan and Ms. Sunarto are also strong advocates for asylum for themselves and others in their position. Mr. Pangemanan has spoken at dozens of events on the need for asylum for practicing Christians from Indonesia, and the couple agreed to serve as lead plaintiffs in Pangemanan v. Tsoukaris, a federal class action the ACLU filed in 2018 that succeeded in preventing the deportation of members of their community to give them time to seek asylum.
The need for protection for the couple and others in their community has increased with each passing year in the last decade, as militant Islamist hardliners gained power throughout Indonesia, resulting in intensifying persecution against Christians and other religious minorities. Christians are now subject to widespread and severe violence, and frequently find themselves with no place to worship as their churches are blocked, shut down, burned, and bombed. In May 2018, three Christian churches were destroyed and fifteen people were killed in coordinated bombing attacks in Surabaya, where Ms. Sunarto used to live. And on Palm Sunday in 2021, two suicide-bombers attacked Christian parishioners in Makassar, Mr. Pangemanan’s hometown, injuring at least nineteen churchgoers.
Christians in Indonesia are at the mercy of militant Islamist groups because the national and local governments cannot or will not stop them and, all too frequently, side with the Islamist organizations perpetrating the attacks. Local governments throughout the country are passing laws requiring all residents, whatever their religion, to follow shari’a law and are punishing people who violate these laws. The laws are enforced in a manner that discriminates against Christians.
Mr. Pangemanan and Ms. Sunarto are especially subject to persecution in Indonesia because of their religious leadership and activism with respect to immigration relief for Indonesian Christians in the United States. Their actions have garnered media attention in both the United States and Indonesia, which heightens the already serious risks they face in their home country.
Lowenstein Sandler has worked with the ACLU-NJ and the Immigration Justice Campaign on behalf of this couple and other Indonesian Christian residents in Central Jersey since 2017. At that time, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) began targeting this community with alarming enforcement actions, such as when ICE arrested and detained two fathers after they dropped their daughters off at school.
At the request of the ACLU, Lowenstein drafted model papers for motions to reopen asylum applications for members of this community. The firm also agreed to represent Mr. Pangemanan and Ms. Sunarto in their motions to reopen, which were granted in August 2021, and in their subsequent asylum proceedings, which today resulted in permanent protection for both of them.
Mr. Pangemanan reacted to the ruling: “We have been waiting for asylum for so long. I cannot describe the relief I feel knowing that my wife and I can remain safely in the United States with our two daughters, and that we can continue to practice our religion openly with others in our community. I only hope that our friends and fellow-worshippers will share our good fortune. Many of them are still waiting for asylum, and they need it as much as we do.”
Catherine Weiss, chair of the Center for the Public Interest at Lowenstein Sandler, added, “It’s been a privilege to represent Harry and Yana. Their years of advocacy have finally won them the protection they deserve, and we join them in wishing the same for their co-congregants.”
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