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Dutch church holds 800-hour service to save family from deportation

A church in the Netherlands is holding an around-the-clock service that has lasted more than 800 hours to shield a family from deportation.

Under Dutch law, police officers are not permitted to enter a church while a religious service is taking place. So, for more than a month, hundreds of pastors and volunteers from across the country have been meeting to maintain the 24/7 service in support of an Armenian family whose asylum claim has been rejected.

Theo Hettema, chairman of the General Council of Protestant Ministers in the Netherlands, told CNN the service will continue “as long as it’s necessary.”

“We want to love God and our neighbor. And we thought that this was a clear opportunity to put the love for our neighbor into reality,” he said.

The Tamrazyan family, including three children Hayarpi, Warduhi and Seyran, fled Armenia and have been living in the Netherlands since April 2010 while their claim for political asylum was being decided. But their case was rejected, and they’ve now been told to leave the country.

Hayarpi Tamrazyan, now aged 21, says she is “incredibly happy and grateful to all volunteers.”

Since the service started, Hayarpi has been posting regular updates on Twitter, thanking people for taking part in the service.

The initial plan to thwart the deportation order was hatched in secret. Axel Wicke from the Bethal church and community center in The Hague, where the service is taking place, says only a handful of people knew about the idea beforehand so that the family – who are staying in church accommodation – wasn’t put in danger.

“Back then there was no rota,” he told CNN. “After the welcome service, I took over with a couple of parish members.”

“I had copied and pasted the liturgies of the last 10 years into one huge document and we just sang and prayed through that, until other pastors were found and took over.”

He says while the police are not waiting outside the church, the building is being monitored “more closely than usual”.

‘There is a solution’

The Tamrazyan family’s only hope now is for government intervention.

Under Dutch law, there is a provision for a so-called children’s pardon for those who have been living in the Netherlands for more than five years. However, Martine Goeman, who is a legal adviser at Defense for Children in the Netherlands, says most applications are declined.

She says there are about 400 children who are in a similar situation to the Tamrazyans, although it’s hard to get exact numbers from the government.

“There is a lot of scientific research done which shows that after 5 years, a child cannot be deported without significant damage to their development” she told CNN by phone.

She described the 24/7 service at Bethel church as “quite powerful” adding that it points to a groundswell in community support for children in similar situations.

“It’s not only the church — it’s also the broader community,” she said.

“The Minister for Migration could solve (the situation) in one day — by using his discretionary powers. There is a solution.”

In a statement to CNN, a spokesman for Dutch migration minister Mark Harbers declined to comment on the Tamrazyan’s case.

He said the minister can intervene in cases involving “very specific, exceptional and urgent circumstances”.

However, he added: “Factors such as a long period of residence in the Netherlands and enrollment in education in the Netherlands are not sufficiently exceptional circumstances.”

Theo Hettema says there are “behind-the-scenes” talks ongoing with the government about the case, which he declined to discuss in public for fear of jeopardizing the process.

Until then, the service continues.

Reverend Joost Roselaers, who’s one of the pastors taking part in leading the service, says taking care of refugees is a very clear part of his Christian faith.

“How long it will take? Well, only God knows. Let’s hope before Christmas,” he said. “It would be a very nice time for the Government to change its mind. But we will go on and on until it’s clear that this family can stay.”