The Hague (AFP) – A Dutch church has resorted to the power of prayer to stop the deportation of an Armenian family sheltering there, holding round-the-clock religious services for more than a month to keep police at bay, officials said Friday.
The Bethel Church in The Hague has taken advantage of a loophole in Dutch law which says that police cannot enter the premises while a religious service is underway.
The five members of the Tamrazyan family, who have been living in the Netherlands for nine years, took refuge in the church on October 25 after Dutch authorities turned down their request for asylum.
“The Tamrazyans knocked on our door one night in a panic and asked us to shelter them and protect them from the police. It was urgent,” church pastor Derk Stegeman told AFP.
Ever since then, parishioners have held a continuous service 24 hours a day to make sure that it is illegal for police officers to go inside the protestant church.
“We have 500 pastors signed up to lead the services”, with some coming from other parts of the Netherlands, said Stegeman, who had recently completed a gruelling six-hour non-stop service.
“It’s incredible what people’s solidarity can achieve.”
– ‘Confronted with a dilemma’ –
The church has since attracted a blaze of media attention and messages of support on social media, while using its website to appeal for volunteers donations and food.
The Tamrazyans — two adults, two daughters aged 21 and 19 and a son aged 14 — left their home in The Hague after learning of the shock decision to reject their asylum claim.
The family reportedly fled Armenia after the father received death threats for his political activities.
In a statement on its website, the church said that it “respects court orders, but finds itself confronted with a dilemma: the choice between respecting the government and protecting the rights of a child”.
“The purpose of the Church Asylum is to create rest and safety for the family and to offer some respite to the family during which we invite politicians to discuss with us the family’s fate.”
The Dutch immigration service said it did not comment on current cases.
The country’s justice ministry has the power to exceptionally grant asylum to minors who are subject to expulsion orders.
The church saga echoes the case which gripped the Netherlands in September in which two Armenian children disappeared to avoid deportation.
Howick, 13 and his sister Lili, 12, were due to be deported to join their mother in Armenia, after a last-ditch legal bid failed to stop their expulsion.
But they were found shortly after the justice ministry said they would be allowed to stay.