Fleeing Persecution: Indonesian Christians seek political asylum through bicoastal Mennonite connections

Sheldon Good, Salford

asylum.jpgOver the past nine years, many Indonesian Christians have fled their home country due to ongoing religious persecution, seeking the comfort and security of political asylum in the United States. Thousands have settled in Southeastern Pennsylvania and southern California. Many have cultivated and developed Mennonite connections, while some remain on the verge of making a return flight across the Pacific.

Political asylum, or the right of asylum as it is often referred as, is the idea that persons who are persecuted in their native country may obtain legal protection from a foreign country. In the United States, the term “asylum seeker” refers to one who is seeking political asylum, while the term “asylee” is used for individuals who have officially been recognized.

Four Indonesians have recently been granted political asylum for one year in California, while one more is due to appear in a state appeals court. Franconia Conference and Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference have both had a representative assisting with translation and religious representation, Aldo Siahaan, member of Philadelphia Praise Center (PPC), and Rina Kusuma, co-pastor of Gereja Kristen Injili Indonesia Zion congregation in Fullerton, CA.

Even though it is unknown where the asylees will settle, it was agreed that the legal proceedings would take place in California. Siahaan said that, “California is the only state where you have a decent chance — 80 percent — at political asylum.”

The four persons who passed their official interviews will be eligible for green cards after one year of asylum status. They will now most likely look for work in either southern California or Philadelphia, thanks in part to their connections to both respective Mennonite conferences, along with the significant Indonesian communities that already exist in both locations.

According to Kusuma, many Indonesians settle in southern California because that is where they have their asylum interviews. “There are a significant number of [Indonesians] in California, with around 20,000 in the city of San Gabriel and around 15,000 in San Bernardino County,” Kusuma said.

All five asylum seekers are ethnically Chinese Indonesian Christians who have fled persecution from indigenous Indonesian Muslims. Many Christians fled Indonesia from 1998-2001 and again in 2003 after sustained riots and violence forced them out of their homes, businesses, and churches. “Sometimes Muslims become jealous of the Christians’ [prominence] and successfulness,” Siahaan said.

Even though the last significant wave of Chinese immigrants to Indonesia occurred towards the beginning of the 20th century, many native Indonesians still do not accept them nor their religious perspectives. Siahaan said, “They think America is a Christian country. Since they hate America, they hate Christians.” Thus, they persecute Chinese Indonesian Christians for having these ties to western influence and culture. “The Indonesian church is growing very fast, and they are trying to stop the church from growing,” Siahaan said, adding that “government officials are mostly native Muslims.” This poses a direct dilemma between Christians and Muslims.

Siahaan and Kusuma were both present during the young asylum seekers’ official interviews. California state judicial officials interview asylum seekers on the areas of religion and immigration and also ask questions pertaining to ethnicity, political tendencies, and family orientation.

The man who was denied has asylum status has appealed the ruling and is preparing to appear in a California state appeals court. Siahaan has turned over his duties to the individual’s attorney. If he wins this case, he is granted asylum status equal to his friends. If he is denied, he must return to Indonesia or flee to another country.

According to Siahaan, being a refugee in America is preferable. “I would prefer to suffer here rather than in Indonesia,” Siahaan said, who immigrated to the United States in 1998.

Four Indonesians are now aslyees and will likely settle in Philadelphia or California finding work or going to school, while one of their friends may be left behind as he continues his struggle.