Looking back at the Church Asylum in The Hague
By Eva Kortekaas
From October 26 2018 till January 30 2019, the Protestant Church The Hague (de Protestantse Kerk Den Haag) offered shelter and church sanctuary to the Armenian Tamrazyan family in the Bethel chapel. They had been living in the Netherlands for nine years and were threatened with having their asylum withdrawn, meaning they would have to leave the Netherlands and return to Armenia.
The church, with the aid of many volunteers, organized a continuous 24/7 worship service, with the goal of creating time and space for a respite for the family as well as a discussion with the government about the result of the Dutch ‘kinderpardon,’ a measure passed years before that should have allowed children who have been in the Netherlands for many years and have gained roots here to stay. People from all over the Netherlands and even from outside the country joined in, as visitors or ministers, all through the day and night.
On January 30 a political agreement was reached which should enable the family Tamrazyan, and over 600 children in a similar situation, to stay in the Netherlands. The family had a respite, ending the church asylum and the 24/7 worship service. On March 26 the news broke that the family would indeed be allowed to stay and that procedures for other children were still in process. The continuous church service lasted for 2307 hours in total, with over 12,000 visitors and over a thousand ministers leading worship. Press from all over the world visited as well.
I remember reading about the call for ministers in the first or second week of the sanctuary. It was just before the Cologne retreat. That moment something started to niggle. Is this not something we should support? Is this not one of the things the Seven Principles encourage us to do? I sent the link to Rev. Derek Suchard, and together we decided to join in, and we signed ourselves up to lead worship for an hour. Hjalmar Rosing, our Director of Music and one of my fellow student ministers, joined as well. During the hour we led worship, we spoke about the church asylum from a UU perspective based on the Seven Principles. We sang ‘Spirit of Life’ and ‘Blue Boat home’. It was a special experience of both attending worship and leading worship as well.
When I started sharing with family and friends that I was choosing to do this, many asked me why. I mean, if the courts had decided for these people to leave, was that fair and just? My reply was that courts can make decisions that are maybe legally correct, but morally not. And what about all the others in this situation? I replied it was not just for this family, but for all the hundreds of children in this situation. I was even asked if a religious community should get involved in issues like this, often with something about the separation between church and state mentioned. This made me realize though that it wasn’t just about the Seven Principles, but about something far more basic, the power and maybe even obligation that religious communities have: to help to give a voice to people whose voice otherwise isn’t heard, to make sure they are not forgotten. Isn’t this one of the big things social justice is all about? It was not just about the family Tamrazyan, but about the hundreds kids who are similar situations and whose future was so very insecure. That was and is for me the very simple reason that I chose to join in.
It is been a few months now since the news that the Tamrazyan family would be able to stay in the Netherlands. Looking back, I still feel the church asylum was a good thing. I mean not just from the idea of leading worship, but the heart of the idea itself. Together with the other protests and initiatives surrounding the ‘kinderpardon,’ a real change was effected in Dutch society, and many children will be allowed to stay. And even though a fairly steep political price was demanded and given, having seen this, I have the confidence that various groups will be able to stand together again, and they will be able to make sure that we can give those people a voice and affect change yet again.