Non-Stop Church Service to Protect Armenian Refugees from Deportation Ends After 96 Days as Dutch Government Decides to Provide Temporary Protection

The marathon service at Bethel Church in The Hague in December. The three-month vigil, intended to shield an Armenian family, ended on Wednesday.
Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

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 nonstop 96-day vigil finally came to an end after its organizers 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 Oct. 26 in order to prevent the five members of the Tamrazyan family from being arrested and sent back to Armenia.

With xenophobia rising in Europe, Christianity’s influence waning and governments taking harder stances on migration, the service quickly became a symbol of how the church can still play a role in contemporary European life — and how liberal causes can still resonate with European populaces.

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.

The movement served as a counterpoint on a continent in which nationalists have recently won office in Austria, Hungary and Italy, and achieved greater prominence in Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden.

“This is just the beginning,” Derk Stegeman, one of the organizers 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 Mr. 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 polarization 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.”

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.

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SOURCE: NY Times, Patrick Kingsley