Family seeking sanctuary in Old Lyme church plans to go back home to New Britain

OLD LYME — Seven months after taking sanctuary in a church to avoid deportation, a family from Pakistan is planning to return to their New Britain home and resume operations of their pizza shop as they await a ruling on their residency status.

The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, which took in the family, said Tuesday that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have indicated they are not opposing the couple's stay request pending with a federal appeals court.

Malik Naveed bin Rehman, his wife Zahida Altaf and their 5-year-old daughter Roniya, a U.S. citizen, sought sanctuary at the church on March 19, the day they had been ordered to leave the country. The church said it allowed the family to stay while they challenged a deportation order in the courts. The family plans to return to their home and restaurant in New Britain, the Pizza Corner.

The family and their lawyers plan to continue pursuing legal status to stay in the country.

Church Senior Minister Steve Jungkeit offered thanks to parishioners, volunteers who helped the family and immigration officials.

"We're utterly grateful for the unopposed stay request," he said. "But more than that, we're grateful for all we have experienced and learned as a result of this experiment in compassion."

The couple said the support and consideration they received from the church and government officials reaffirms their determination to make the U.S. their home.

"We sought sanctuary not to protest or defy ICE," they said. "We only wanted more time for our case to be heard."

The couple came to the United States in 2000 and stayed past their visa expiration dates, according to federal officials. In their efforts to extend their visas and become U.S. citizens, the couple was misled by an immigration attorney who was later jailed for defrauding other clients, church officials said.

***The Associated Press contributed to this report***