Dutch Church Ends Continuous Service to Protect Asylum Seekers

A non-stop church service protecting a family of five from deportation has come to an end, after the Dutch government agreed to re-evaluate the family’s claim for asylum. The 96-day service lasted around the clock, with at least one pastor present at all times, as Dutch law forbids law enforcement to enter a church during worship. This allowed the continuous service to effectively prohibit the family’s deportation.

The Tamrazyan family had requested asylum after coming to the Netherlands nine years ago, but the Dutch immigration authorities denied their claim, stating that Armenia is considered a safe country in the eyes of the government. Mr. Tamrazyan and his lawyer disagreed, citing persecution and threats he faced from his political activism while in Armenia.

The Tamrazyans sought refuge in Bethel Church, a Protestant church in the heart of Hauge, Netherlands on Oct. 26, 2018, and stayed until late Jan. 2019. The community came together, catering meals and providing basic necessities, all while working to ensure that a sermon was constantly being given to protect the family. During these 96 days, the family was unable to leave the church due to fears that the immigration police would be waiting outside the doors to arrest and deport them.

Pastors from neighboring regions came to participate, with services in the early hours of the morning garnering one or two worshipers, while prime-time sermons were so popular with the church streamed the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day service online. The church cited their commitment to doing good, and sheltering those in need when asked to justify their decision. The New York Times spoke with Derk Stegeman, an organizer for the Bethel Church service, during which he said “I hope it’s a new way of being a church— a new way of having an impact on society, a new way of standing up for vulnerable people.”

The family, consisting of two parents and three children, has been living in the Netherlands for nine years, during which time the children have attended school and the parents have put down roots. They are just one of approximately 700 families listed for deportation, many of whom are eligible to have their cases re-examined in light of the government’s concessions.

Though the government has agreed to revisit their cases and the cases of many others, none are granted any certainty that they will be able to stay. At this moment, all they have is the assurance that during the review they will not be deported. The eldest daughter spoke with Reuters in December, explaining “I really don’t know what the outcome will be, but we hope we can stay here, because this is our home, this is where we belong.”

At the heart of many of these asylum cases is the concept of Kinderpardon, meaning Children’s Pardon, a Dutch ruling that protects children who have lived in the country with asylum for five or more years. The families of these children are allowed to remain as well. Though the ruling coalition has agreed to review the cases of about 700 individuals, speeding up the asylum process, this victory comes at a cost. After the cases are decided, the Kinderpardon will be abolished, tightening immigration restrictions even further.

Much of this crackdown comes on the heels of European anti-immigration sentiment, stemming from the Syrian refugee crisis beginning in 2011. Many governments formerly in power have lost seats due to more welcoming immigration stances, something Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s Center-Right government has noticed. As a result, the ruling coalition has toughened up on immigration, in an attempt to preserve what little majority the hold, with the March 20 elections quickly approaching, and Geert Wilders nationalist, anti-Islam, anti-immigration party gaining traction.

Mark Harbers, the Netherlands Minister of Migration, commented on the issue, stating “You have to resign yourself to what the judge decides and not think that because your case gets a lot of attention afterwards, you will still be allowed to stay.”

Theo Hattema, a spokesman for Bethel Church welcomed the news, stating  “We are incredibly grateful that hundreds of refugee families will have a safe future in the Netherlands,” while also expressing concern for the future asylum seekers and their children, after the elimination of Kinderpardon and the tightening of immigration policy.

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