Three-month Dutch church vigil to protect refugees finally ends

Non-stop service to prevent family’s deportation ends as officials agree to review cases

It was one of the longest religious ceremonies ever recorded, lasting for more than three months and involving nearly 1,000 pastors and priests. But on Wednesday afternoon, a Dutch church's non-stop 96-day vigil finally came to an end after its organisers received confirmation that a family of refugees sheltering inside the church would no longer face immediate deportation from the Netherlands.

Taking advantage of an obscure Dutch law that forbids the police to interrupt church services, ministers at Bethel Church in The Hague had been running a round-the-clock liturgy since October 26th in order to prevent the five members of the Tamrazyan family from being arrested and sent back to Armenia.

Pastors from across Europe visited Bethel to participate in the service, many with several members of their congregations in tow, while more than 250,000 people signed a petition calling for a change to the law under which hundreds of families like the Tamrazyans could have been deported.

“This is just the beginning,” Derk Stegeman, one of the organisers of the Bethel service, said in a telephone interview after it had ended.


“I hope it’s a new way of being a church – a new way of having an impact on society, a new way of standing up for vulnerable people,” said Stegeman, a Protestant Church pastor who has acted as a spokesman for the Tamrazyans. “There’s still a big tension in our society, a strong division and polarisation between these two groups,” he said, while adding that he hoped the movement to shield the family could spark “a new attitude towards strangers and refugees”.

Coalition compromise

The church decided that the service could be safely ended after a grand compromise between the four parties of the Netherlands’ governing coalition. The parties provisionally agreed on Tuesday that up to 700 families who had been previously listed for deportation, despite having lived in the Netherlands for more than a decade in some cases, could have their cases reassessed.

The announcement constituted a radical policy reversal for some of the parties. One government minister had previously described the Tamrazyan family's fate as "hopeless". "For me, I hope it shows that wherever you are in the world, you can raise your voice," said Tim Hofman, a filmmaker whose documentary about families like the Tamrazyans was instrumental in raising awareness about their fate. Hofman also started the petition against their deportation.

Though no instructions have yet been issued to the Dutch civil service, and no family’s fate has been confirmed, Stegeman said he had been assured by several political leaders on Tuesday night that the status of the Tamrazyan family would be among those reassessed.

That encouraged Stegeman and his colleagues to halt the service, which began last autumn in secret and with few congregants present but ended on Wednesday afternoon with an emotional final communion in front of a packed chapel. “It was very emotional, very humorous. We laughed a lot, we applauded for a long time,” Stegeman said.

The three Tamrazyan children – Hayarpi (21), Warduhi (19) and Seyran (15) – and their parents, who have asked to keep their names secret for safety reasons, can now walk around in public but will remain based in the church until their situation is formally clarified.

They first arrived in the country in 2010, fleeing what their advocates describe as political persecution in Armenia. In a legal wrangle that lasted six years, the government twice tried to deport them before a court twice ruled they had the right to remain. But after a third deportation order was upheld, the Tamrazyans fled to a small church north of The Hague before moving a few days later to Bethel Church.

At a news conference, Hayarpi Tamrazyan expressed relief at their apparent stay of deportation – but also caution. “They have reached an agreement, and that agreement says, ‘We are going to re-evaluate the dossiers,’” she said in remarks published by Agence France-Presse. “Therefore, we don’t know officially that we may stay, because that dossier still has to be judged.” – New York Times