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Sanctuary and Public Space: Church Asylum and Kinderpardon in the Netherlands

Date:08 February 2019
Author:Christoph Grüll
Sermon at Bethel Chapel
Sermon at Bethel Chapel

What does a 97 day church service have to do with the power of the state? Christoph Grüll reflects on compassion, justice, and the meaning of sanctuary.

Bethel Chapel is situated on a calm street. One would not expect anything peculiar in a street like this. Rarely noticed by passersby, the chapel is a small building, more a community center than a highly active church. The only thing that could, perhaps, have revealed what was going on inside over the past few months was its front door.

The Chapel’s door had been closed for 97 days and nights, unlocked only briefly to let in or out anyone who rang the bell. Walking through this door, at any time in the day or night, a visitor would stumble into an ongoing service – 24/7, non-stop, the longest one, possibly, ever to have taken place. Ministers, pastors, priests, and vicars from all kinds of Christian traditions arrived in the church, one after the other, from all around the Netherlands (and even from abroad) to hold a service, sometimes with just a few people in the room, sometimes in front of large groups. They passed on a candle from one to the other as a sign that this ‘relay’-service was not coming to an end. This was so until the 30th of January 2019. Then the service concluded, the doors could be opened, and the ones for whom it had been held could freely leave the church again. 

The Chapel had offered church asylum to an Armenian family, the Tamrazyans, protecting three children and their parents from deportation. Dutch law forbids the authorities from interrupting an ongoing service. In practical terms, this meant that – so long as enough volunteers were willing to gather in the chapel to continue with the service – the Tamrazyans were protected from deportation.

On the night of 29 January 2019, the four parties that currently form the governing coalition in the Netherlands reached an agreement on the so-called kinderpardon (children’s pardon). Dutch legal scholar Martijn Stronks defines the children’s pardon regulation, with one eye on its inherently paradoxical nature, as the ‘continuous return of a one-time exception.’ After much disagreement, the coalition decided that the deportation orders for approximately 740 children and their families – among them the Tamrazyans – would be suspended, and their cases reopened by the Immigration and Naturalization Office.

In practice, this means new hope for the approximately 1300 persons who have claimed a right to stay on the basis of a 2013 law that protects non-EU children from deportation if they have lived in the Netherlands for at least five years. The Dutch speak of these children as being rooted (“geworteld”). Hashtags such as #ZeZijnAlThuis (#TheyAreHomeAlready) reflect these claims.

In his discussion of the kinderpardon, Stronks situates the debate in the context of competing claims to a just asylum policy. On the one hand, there is a strict ‘rules are rules’ position (exemplified by the major coalition party, the liberals). On the other hand, there are calls to more mercifully execute the 2013 law. This position is exemplified by the Christian Union. Drawing on the work of Zygmunt Bauman, Stronks suggests that the debate takes place under conditions that make state control ever more fragile. The regulation of the pardon and its rightful execution play right into this debate.[i]

Accordingly, the coalition’s agreement is a political bargain that reflects those different claims to justice: on the one hand, a reopening of the cases under question, on the other hand, stricter government control. After the Christian Democrats (Christen-Democratisch Appèl, CDA) changed their position a week before the decision (one observer even speaks of their ‘proselytization’), pressure on the liberals (Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie, VVD) increased to accept their demands. (The CDA’s shift in position, which now aligned with those of the Christian Union (CU) and the Democrats (D66), had helped create a majority against the VVD.) The new agreement contains three main changes: the abolishing of the regulation on the children’s pardon for future scenarios; the transfer of responsibilities to decide on cases of particular hardship from the Ministry of Justice and Security to the Director of the Immigration and Naturalization Office; and a cut in the total number of refugees accepted for resettlement in the Netherlands from 750 to 500 persons per year. The agreement is an exercise in striking a balance between mercy and control, both aspects of state politics that are crucial to government sovereignty.

The public significance of Bethel Chapel’s offer of ‘church asylum’ lies in its direct involvement in these questions of state power. Let me address two central aspects, overlapping but distinct: structure and content.

First, on a structural, or formal, level, church asylum acts as a limitation to law enforcement. The protection of a family from deportation is an act of civil disobedience, in that it breaks the logic of ‘rules are rules’ to make concrete claims within the existing legal framework (namely, the insistence that the cases at hand are reopened). As is clear from the coalition government’s changed position, official decisions have been influenced by unofficial sources of law-making: the people involved in organizing the service and upholding the sanctuary; the heated debates that it generated; the strong support among those who expressed solidarity with the children in question and other families in similar situations. All of this increased the pressure on official decision-makers.

The church’s opposition to the pending deportation orders did not come in the form of angry and loud mass protests, however. In the lead-up to the government’s decision on the kinderpardon, the church presented a somewhat quieter – and yet, perhaps, more fundamental – form of civil disobedience. The service was widely reported, leading to growing pressure on at least one of the coalition parties (the Christian Democrats). In this regard, it was not exactly ‘quiet.’ Yet these sounds and furies were its noisy reverberations, its multiple overlaying echoes, its political repercussions. The act itself was of a very different kind.

Church asylum, as one particular form of sanctuary, does not begin as a political statement but as an act of hospitality, one which aims to correct a legal and/or administrative decision that is perceived as unjust.[ii] Compassion alone, however, is not enough. What drives contemporary ideas of sanctuary is the search for an individual solution – thus focusing on the particular rights of the individual. As it strives towards finding a solution for those who are granted church asylum, it requires reconciliation with the state rather than continuous resistance. What church asylum helps to identify, its proponents often hasten to clarify, is that there is a flaw in the rule-based system. Church asylum, they argue, is a ‘blessing for constitutional democracies’ rather than a danger or hurdle to its realization – as formulated by the German section of the Jesuit Refugee Service. In this spirit, the Dutch Council of Churches addressed the Dutch Prime Minister, the accountable Minister for Justice and Security, and the heads of the different parties in a letter, publicly calling for a change in government policy by referring not only to church asylum, but to scientific research on child welfare and to existing national laws.

Second, in terms of content, practices of sanctuary involve the public articulation of particular visions of justice, compassion, and living together. The actions of those at Bethel were based on a concrete act of solidarity, drawing inspiration from a mix of religious and secular motivations and knowledge, and attracting support from both regular church-goers and the religiously unaffiliated. Those leading the service were as diverse as those in the pews, making the service highly ecumenical. 

During my own visits to Bethel Church, I saw a play based on Abraham’s journey through the desert; a Quaker service, mainly done in a circle of silence around a single candle, leaving the participants free to speak words as they came to them; chanting in the tradition of Taizé; and the reading of a story about a Jewish scholar tirelessly helping passersby wherever he went. All of these were accompanied by conversations about faith, and all referenced the reason the service was being held: children and families under threat. Feelings of gratitude and togetherness were as much part of the encounters in the service as their sense of urgency and importance. Joy about the resonance of compassion and closeness filled the church.[iii] This amounted to an experience irreducible to the pleasures and burdens of help, the protest against the government, or the religious commitments and contemplation that the service involved.  

The stories shared, the rituals performed, and the dialogues held as part of this almost-never-ending service were, in one sense, set apart from public debate. After all, they took place within the protective walls of Bethel Church. And yet, for the period of these 97 days and nights, it was precisely this protection, this being set apart, that put the sanctuary into an odd relationship with the private and the public. As one of the participants in the above-mentioned circle of prayer said: “When watching the light of this candle in our middle, it makes me believe that, after all, it actually does make a difference that we stand here together.”

When these words were uttered, it was not yet clear whether the church asylum would, in fact, make any difference for the families at risk. By now, though, we know that it has. Reactions to the decision are mixed within the Bethel community, reflecting the tensions that come with the give and take that characterize the political agreement. The joy and relief of and for those who will be allowed to stay is tempered by the fact that many people will not benefit from this decision. Concern, frustration, and disappointment have been voiced about other aspects of the deal. Despite these mixed feelings, which undergird rather than undermine the community’s motivation for future activities, the recent sanctuary has made a difference not only for the Tamrazyan family (and others facing deportation), but also for those involved in providing sanctuary.

More than that, church asylum – but also, and perhaps even more, the ongoing efforts of churches and other religious communities in engaging with and supporting asylum-seekers and others in need – is a case in point for the ongoing public role of religious institutions. This should not be reduced to instrumentalist gap-filling in the crumbling welfare state – plugging the holes, as it were, left by the state as it withdraws from the public sector. Rather, the relationship between acts of solidarity and articulations of justice, as manifested in sanctuary, are meaningful contributions to an ongoing conversation.

These conversations are urgently needed in times of uncertainty and political polarization. Following Martijn Stronks and Zygmunt Bauman, it seems clear that national governments struggle to adequately address the complexities of a largely transnational world (migration, climate change, security, finances, health). Keeping these conversations open is a counter-weight to the rhetoric on both sides of the spectrum (‘rules are rules’ versus ‘the good Samaritan’). Sometimes, this requires a pause – and sometimes pauses need to be taken against the mainstream of the rush of political struggles. This is especially so when human lives are at stake, when moral concerns come to the fore in political debate and decision-making. 

Debates over the meaning of sanctuary are but one example of the way that protests or calls for reform involve a highly nuanced set of beliefs, actions, and exchange of ideas about compassion and justice. How can we combine compassion and justice? Can we agree on a shared definition of the good life, and is it compatible with fixing the number of places for refugee resettlement? What does it mean to have roots, and is there a one-rule-fits-all definition? Perhaps the idea of sanctuary marks a moment of political and legal significance precisely because it generates a space in which we might pause and reflect on these very questions.

 

[i]    The referenced works of Bauman are Strangers at Our Doors (2016) and Wasted Lives (2003).

[ii]   The relationship between acts of sanctuary and national asylum policies is discussed in much detail by Linda Rabben, Sanctuary and Asylum: A Social and Political History, 2016.

[iii]   My own visits took place between mid-November and the end of December 2018. I did not record any interviews or parts of the service but took notes after these visits and about my conversations.

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