For more than a month, a rotating roster of preachers has been leading a non-stop, round-the-clock service at a small Protestant chapel in The Hague in an attempt to shield a family of Armenian asylum-seekers from deportation.
Under a centuries-old tradition, authorities in the Netherlands don’t enter a church while a service is underway. That means that for now the Tamrazyan family — parents, their two daughters and son — are safe from Dutch immigration authorities who want to send them back to Armenia.
“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,” Theo Hettema, chair of the General Council of the Protestant Church of The Hague, said Friday. “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.”
The church service shines a light on a problem facing authorities in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe: what to do with families who have been fighting legal battles for asylum for so long that their children have become deeply integrated into society, going to school, learning the language and making friends.
On a cold winter’s Friday, visitors come and go at the church, ringing the bell on a door that in normal circumstances is open to all. A sign on the door says it is closed “due to the special circumstances.”
The visits of supporters underscore a continuing groundswell of sympathy for asylum seekers in parts of a Dutch society that once was known for its welcoming attitude, but has drifted to the right in recent years.
One visitor, 74-year-old Bart ten Broek, said he was proud of the church’s action, while lamenting the need for it.
“I love this country with the tradition of tolerance, respect for the other,” he said. “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 has been living in the Netherlands for nearly nine years, as their asylum application and various appeals proceeded slowly through the courts. Now the Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court, has ruled they must return to their home country, which is considered safe by the Dutch government.
The Associated Press was not given access to the family. “The father was politically active and fled to the Netherlands because of threats,” Hettema said.
Over the years, sisters Hayarpi, 21, and Warduhi, 19, and their 15-year-old brother Seyran have laid down roots, attended school and made friends.
While the round-the-clock service continues, the family sometimes listens to the sermon, cooks or receives visits from friends.
“It’s very stressful for them,” Hettema said. “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 Defense 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 Goeman says appeals for such a pardon are rarely honored.
“The eligibility criteria are so strict that almost nobody is granted one,” she said. “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. In a written response, the ministry said the current four-party coalition led by Prime Minister Mark Rutte had decided not to broaden the children’s pardon when it took office.
In exceptional cases, the justice minister can use discretionary powers to grant asylum.
“These are cases involving unforeseen circumstances that were not taken into account when the policy and rules were established,” according to the ministry statement. “Factors such as a long period of residence in the Netherlands and enrolment in education in the Netherlands are not sufficiently exceptional circumstances.”
Goeman said she hopes the government will allow the children to stay.
“This is not going to blow over,” she said. “The opposition in society is only getting stronger.”
Hettema said that after initially using local preachers to deliver the service, the church has now reached out to others and has received offers of help from some 500 people from different churches as far away as Belgium.
That support gives the locals strength to carry on, hoping that they can open talks with lawmakers and the government about the family’s plight.
“As long as it’s useful to contribute to the dialogue, we will continue with the church service,” Hettema said.