Sometimes, it seems as though religious persecution claims are not taken as seriously as other types of asylum claims. An asylum claim can be based on any of five grounds: race, nationality, religion, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. If you look at the cases that get approved, though, the large majority seem to come from those last two groups: political opinion and social group membership. Not many claims are made based on race or nationality. Meanwhile, religious claims are often denied.
For example, there was a long battle to recognize claims based on persecution of Christians in China. The Chinese government tightly controls religious practice and heavily regulates churches. A group of people cannot get together to pray unless they meet the onerous requirements of a state-approved church. Naturally, a lot of “underground churches” sprang up. The government would arrest and punish these Christians. Yet, it took the U.S. courts a long time — and a lot of public pressure and protest — before they started recognizing these claims.
Still, these kinds of cases remain difficult to win. A good example is a case handed down by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals on November 8: Supangat v. Holder. This case involved a Christian in Indonesia, a majority Muslim country. He testified to constant harassment from Muslims, including kidnapping, assaults, extortion, and threats against his family. The court explained, “Supangat presented evidence that he was harassed and intimidated on his way to school, church, and work due to his ethnicity and his Christianity, and that he was once abducted and taken to a cemetery where he was threatened with a knife.”
Nevertheless, the court refused to grant his application for asylum. They decided that his suffering, though severe, did not “rise to the level of persecution” because they “lacked severity” or were “isolated acts of criminal conduct or lawlessness.” The court concluded that though “Supangat may fear returning to Indonesia, that fear is not an objectively reasonable fear of persecution.” Accordingly, his claim was denied and he was ordered deported to Indonesia.
These cases are always judgment calls, and courts have the difficult task of deciding where to draw the line between persecution and mere harassment. Nevertheless, in the opinion of Salmon-Haas, the kind of harm described by this individual was well above mere harassment, and he was entitled to asylum protection. I can’t help but think that if he faced the same kind of harm due to a political opinion or a social group, his claim would have had a better chance of success. I think it requires a higher standard in practice to win on a religion claim, and that should not be the case.