A Dutch church has been holding continuous sermons day and night for five weeks as it exploits an obscure old law to protect an Armenian refugee family from deportation.
On Sunday, the service in Bethel church in The Hague entered its 37th day with the help of 450 volunteer pastors – including Roman Catholics and lay preachers – to protect the Tamrazyan family from arrest with a running a continuous service.
Under a Dutch law originating from the Old Testament and common law in the Middle Ages, police may not enter a church during a service.
Theo Hettema, chairman of the general council of the Protestant church in The Hague, says that although 52 people have taken refuge in a Dutch church in the past decade, this is the first time that police have insisted they will only respect the sanctuary if a service is in progress.
“If they go on the street, they could be arrested,” Mr Hettema, who led the first service at 1.30pm on October 26th, told The Telegraph. “Their feelings go between hope and stress. They are supported by the many people who comfort them.
“From the start, we said with our church asylum, we want to create some space and time for you to show your case and the wider case of some 400 refugee children in the same circumstances to the government. We cannot guarantee success.”
The family, which has children of 21, 19, and 15, has been living in the Netherlands for nine years. Father Sasun Tamrazyan, 43, had been politically active in an opposition party in Armenia and claimed political asylum.
But although a residence permit was provided initially, Dutch prosecutors mounted multiple appeals and eventually overturned it.
The family, however, has asked for a “children’s pardon” since their children have been in the Netherlands for more than five years and are fully integrated.
After organising colleagues to lead the services immediately after him, Mr Hettema says he has been overwhelmed by offers of help. Between two and 100 people have been attending services, including delegations from areas like Friesland, determined to show their support.
The family had been living in an asylum centre in nearby Katwijk, and on hearing they would be deported in September, took refuge in their local church for a month.
The Protestant church organisation of The Hague agreed to organise a location that could conduct continuous services when police said they would not respect a “gentleman’s agreement” not to enter.
The case has happened in the context of a hardening of national views on asylum, and rise in support for far-right parties.
Earlier this year, two Armenian children who had lived for a decade in the Netherlands but faced deportation ran away, sparking an national man hunt and last-minute reprieve.
A spokesman for the Dutch immigration services Lennart Wegewijs said the government was fielding media requests from all around the world. “Our policy is the same as it always has been: we do not comment on individual cases,” he said.