The Guardian(London), UK
Friday 5:00 AM GMT
Sixty day church service keeps hope alive for asylum family at Christmas
Family facing deportation to Armenia are protected by medieval Dutch law as long as church service continues
by Daniel Boffey in The Hague
The pastors and volunteers at Bethel church, a small Protestant chapel tucked away on a quiet street in a residential district of The Hague, are preparing for what looks likely to be an unusually busy and anxious Christmas.
They worry that they will need to turn away some of the faithful at the door, and there are even tentative plans to live-stream the services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, such is the expected level of interest.
The main concern, though, is to keep a flicker of hope alive among the Tamrazyan family – Sasun, his wife Anousche and their children Hayarpi, 21, Warduhi, 19, and Seyran, 15 – who have been holed up in the church for nearly two months, protected by a medieval law that says immigration authorities cannot enter while a religious service is ongoing.
The Tamrazyan family have been fighting to stay in the Netherlands since arriving from Armenia in 2009. They turned to the church in late October when their asylum application reached the end of the line and deportation appeared imminent.
The claim that their lives would be at risk in Armenia due to Sasun Tamrazyan's political activism has fallen on deaf ears, as has an application for a kinderpardon, a dispensation available to families with children who have lived in the Netherlands for more than five years.
With nowhere to go, the Tamrazyans put their fate in the hands of the Bethel church community in The Hague's Segbroek district. It was quick to respond. By Christmas Eve, a service in the chapel will have run continuously for 60 days and nights, or for more than 1,400 hours. It is thought to be the longest "asylum service" in Dutch history.
Through day and night, pastors hold services for six or seven hours at a time, always with a congregation of at least three people so they can justifiably describe their efforts as a religious service.
A list of phone numbers of neighbours ready to join the congregation at a moment's notice has been compiled should there be a danger of the chapel emptying, but it has never been needed.
The case has become something of a cause célèbre but visitors have generally been kept away from the family members, who have struggled to deal with the attention and uncertainty over their future.
In her first interview with a British newspaper, Sasun's eldest daughter, Hayarpi, a student of econometrics at Tilburg University, said it was only hope that was sustaining them. "If we don't have that then I don't know. I need hope to keep going," she said.
"We can't go outside here because there is a risk of being arrested and we don't want to take risks", she added. "There may be police and in one minute we could be arrested. It is dreadful we can't be free and do what you want – study, attend lectures, do the things you normally do.
"We don't know what is going to happen and that is very difficult. We are trying to do the things that we always did, online lectures, my brother is doing homework, and we get support from his school and people here. That strengthens us."
Since the first service started at 1.30pm on 26 October, more than 650 pastors from the Netherlands, Germany, France and Belgium have done their bit, offering meditation, preaching, readings or even "cleaning services", where hoovering is combined with song.
The pastors say they are doing it not only for the Tamrazyans but for all the children of asylum seekers, who the Dutch Protestant church says are being poorly served by the government. For some, the case has come to symbolise a falling away of the traditional tolerance in Dutch society – and the church's resistance to it.
"I received a call on 24 October from a colleague who had a phone call from someone close to the family," said Derk Stegeman, a pastor at the church, recalling the moment he was made aware of the case. "They asked whether they [the family] could get asylum in our church.
"Of course there were doubts. We had a thorough discussion about it and got lots of information to be sure that the story was a good one that symbolised their fate and that of the families of the 400 children or or so who should be given amnesty."
"What was special for this family was that it was the state that appealed against the family," Stegeman said. "Two times the courts decided they could stay, and the state appealed two times. They applied for a kinderpardon, which was denied, and they had to wait almost two years for this decision."
"The first reason for the service is the child amnesty regulation, because we think they have been here for nine years and if they are not applicable for the kinderpardon, who would be?"
Stegeman said the church would keep on going as long as there was hope that the state would reconsider.
"I think we can go on very long time but we don't want this to be a game or a fight," he said. "It is not about who is the strongest, it is about hope for the family. We started this by saying we respect our government and the courts … If there is no hope for us and the family to see, I think it would be difficult to go on".
"Our idea at first was that this would be a burden", Stegeman added, "but it in effect it has become our campfire."