By Patrick Kingsley
Pastor Rosaliene Israel has joined other clergy members at Bethel Church to protect a family from deportation. (Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times)
THE HAGUE — Jessa van der Vaart and Rosaliene Israel, two Dutch pastors, usually get to church by cycling through the streets of Amsterdam to a Protestant parish in the city center. Recently, they packed their robes into the trunk of a car and drove to The Hague for what was the equivalent of a priestly shift change.
They would take over at 8 p.m. from a local minister at Bethel Church. Then, at 11 p.m., they would be replaced by a group from the city of Voorburg who were scheduled to pull an all-nighter, singing hymns and preaching until daylight, when another cleric would arrive to take over.
The marathon church service, which started more than six weeks ago, hasn’t stopped since and can never take a break.
Under an obscure Dutch law, the police may not disrupt a church service to make an arrest. And so immigration officials have been unable to enter Bethel Church to seize the five members of the Tamrazyan family, Armenian refugees who fled to the sanctuary to escape a deportation order.
The service, which began in late October as a little-noticed, last-gasp measure by a small group of local ministers, is now a national movement, attracting clergy members and congregants from villages and cities across the Netherlands. More than 550 pastors from about 20 denominations have rotated through Bethel Church, all in the name of protecting one vulnerable family.
“It’s about practicing what we preach,” Ms. van der Vaart said.
At a moment when Christianity’s relevance in Europe is waning — and when xenophobia and nationalism are rising — the Bethel service has also been a reminder of the influence that religious institutions can still exert in a largely secular Western Europe. The pastors have given protection to the Tamrazyan family; the family has given them a cause to show the power of their faith.
The story of the service started in Katwijk, southwest of Amsterdam. The Tamrazyan family— the three children Haryarpi, 21, Warduhi, 19, and Seyran, 15 — ended up there after the father was forced to flee Armenia for political reasons in 2010, said Pastor Derk Stegeman, a spokesman for the family and the service’s main organizer. At the family’s request, their full predicament has been kept a secret, along with the names of the parents, to prevent repercussions for relatives still in Armenia.
Dutch officials twice tried to deny the family asylum in six years, and were twice defeated in court. But the government finally got its way on its third attempt, even though the three children had all been in the country for more than five years and were theoretically eligible for an amnesty under legislation enacted in 2013.
Lennart Wegewijs, a spokesman for the Dutch ministry of justice and security, said that the government could not comment on individual cases. But speaking generally, he said that under Dutch law, families can only qualify for amnesty if they are willing to cooperate with official efforts to deport them from the country.
To avoid what they believed to be danger back in Armenia, the Tamrazyans did not cooperate and took refuge in a church in Katwijk. It was when that first church ran out of resources to help them that the leadership at Bethel agreed to welcome the family instead.
As well as maintaining round-the-clock prayers, the church has provided psychological help for the family and teaching for the children, who can no longer go to school or university classes.
The pastors have promised to continue the service indefinitely — even after a Dutch official said recently that the service hadn’t changed the government’s mind.
By 11 p.m., the two pastors from Amsterdam were relieved by the group that had just arrived from Voorburg.
As Ms. Israel left the chapel, Haryarpi told her that she had been inspired to write a poem about one of the psalms they had sung. “For me, that’s what it’s all about,” she said.
“You could read that psalm a hundred times and not get touched by it,” Ms. Israel said. “But here, in this night, in Bethel Church, it’s very real.”