Church holds non-stop service to stop family being deported from Netherlands

Preachers at a church in the Netherlands have been holding a round-the-clock service for more than a month to stop a family of Armenian asylum seekers being deported.

A centuries-old tradition means authorities in the Netherlands do not enter a church while a service is taking place.

So far, the service has been going on for more than 800 hours since it started on 26 October.

It means that for now the Tamrazyan family – including the parents, their two daughters and son – can avoid Dutch immigration authorities while the service is held at the Bethel Church in The Hague.

Theo Hettema, chairman of the general vouncil of the Protestant Church of The Hague, said: “There was only one thing you could do and that was starting a church service to save the life of this family, but also call attention for the fate of so many children in similar circumstances.

“It’s heartbreaking. We had compassion and we had good reasons and we thought it was the mission of our church to act like this.”

Armenian Hayarpi Tamrazyan (R) and Dutch pastor Theo Hettema in the Bethel church in The Hague
Image:
Hayarpi Tamrazyan (R) with Dutch pastor Theo Hettema

A sign on the church door says it is closed “due to the special circumstances”.

One visitor, 74-year-old Bart ten Broek, said he was proud of the church’s action.

He said: “I love this country with the tradition of tolerance, respect for the other.

“But you see there is a change and therefore I am here, too, to show our attitude. We have to be hosts.”

The Tamrazyan family have been living in the Netherlands for almost nine years, as their asylum application and various appeals proceeded slowly through the courts.

The Council of State, the Netherlands’ highest administrative court, has ruled they must return to their home country.

The father was politically active and fled to the Netherlands because of threats.

Sisters Hayarpi, 21, and Warduhi, 19, and their 15-year-old brother Seyran have since attended school in the country.

While the round-the-clock service continues, the family sometimes listen to the sermon, cook or receive visits from friends.

Mr Hettema said: “It’s very stressful for them. Sometimes they are sad and nervous and sometimes they are hopeful and give us hope in return.”

Martine Goeman, a lawyer with the Dutch branch of non-government group Defence For Children, said there are about 400 children in a similar position in the Netherlands.

The Dutch government introduced a rule in 2013, known by many as a “children’s pardon”, that under special circumstances grants asylum to children who have been in the country for more than five years while their asylum application is processed.

But Ms Goeman said appeals for such a pardon are rarely honoured.

She said: “The eligibility criteria are so strict that almost nobody is granted one.

“So actually it is a dead letter. That is a shame, because a children’s pardon sounds like something great for children, but in practice it is meaningless.”

The Dutch justice ministry declined to comment on the family’s case.

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