Eight Indonesian Christians who defied U.S. deportation orders by seeking refuge in a church have been granted a temporary reprieve, immigration officials and church leaders confirmed Monday.

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The Indonesians, five who had been living for months inside the Highland Park church and three who lived nearby, were granted a temporary stay of their deportation orders, allowing them to remain in the U.S. legally for a year.

The eight have been placed on orders of supervision and will be allowed to remain in their community instead of being placed in detention but will be required to report to immigration authorities, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Harold Ort said.

The Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale, of the Reformed Church of Highland Park, had been pushing to help them and similar communities of Indonesian Christians in New York, New Hampshire and elsewhere reopen their bids for U.S. asylum. He said the Feb. 14 decision by ICE officials led to "tears of relief, expressions of gratitude and a whole lot of food and celebration" among the Indonesians and their supporters.

"We have a deep appreciation for ICE to meet with us human to human, and we are very thankful to ICE for their flexibility," he said.

Hundreds of Christians fled Indonesia between 1996 and 2003, when more than 1,000 churches were destroyed by anti-Christian extremists in the majority Muslim country. The U.S. government allowed many of them to enter the United States on tourist visas in the chaotic aftermath of the fall of the regime of dictator Suharto, who ruled Indonesia from 1967 to 1998. Many worked, established lives in the U.S. and had U.S.-born children.

But after male Muslim extremists attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, and destroyed the World Trade Center, the U.S. government required all boys and men between the ages of 16 and 65 to register if they had entered the U.S. on temporary visas from Muslim nations. Indonesians, coming from the most populous Muslim nation in the world, had to register with the U.S. government, regardless of their religion, or be classified as terrorist fugitives.

That's when the deportation orders began, and Indonesian Christians, fearing persecution if they were sent back to Indonesia, found themselves in legal limbo as they had surpassed the time limit for applying for U.S. asylum.

New Jersey U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg and New York U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, Democrats, are sponsoring legislation that would allow Indonesian Christians to reopen their U.S. asylum bids.

Kaper-Dale said the group is hoping the congressional legislation will pass or comprehensive immigration reform will be implemented and they will be allowed to remain in New Jersey, which they have come to consider home.


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