On Thursday January 17, news broke in the Netherlands that a Dutch journalist had been expelled from Turkey.  Ans Boersma, 31, had been detained the day before in Istanbul when she applied to renew her residence visa.  In a last-ditch attempt to help her, a group of her colleagues brought a lawyer to the police station where she was being held.  Their efforts were futile, and she was loaded onto a plane bound for Amsterdam.  Dutch politicians took to Twitter to denounce this as another instance of Turkey’s well-documented habit of flouting the freedom of the press.

However, it quickly emerged that there was more to the story—a lot more.  Boersma wasn’t being deported for something she had written.  Rather, she was a suspect in an ongoing terrorism investigation by the Dutch government.  And not just any investigation, but a very high profile one.

In September 2017, a group of Syrian refugees attended the screening of a documentary about the Syrian civil war in a theater in Amsterdam.  All of a sudden, a cry went up from the audience.  Some of the Syrians recognized a man in their midst.  He was a jihadist who had fought for Jabhat al-Nusra, a group that is sometimes called “Al Qaeda in Syria.”  They attempted to have him apprehended, but in the ensuing commotion he managed to flee the theater.

The story caused an uproar in the Netherlands.  The Syrian man in question—who has been named publicly only as “Abdelaziz al-H.”—was subsequently arrested and is now in a Dutch maximum-security prison awaiting trial.  Dutch prosecutors claim that he held a leadership role in al-Nusra.  Allegedly, he climbed the ranks quickly after he helped orchestrate an attack that killed 200 people.  Abdelaziz is also accused of laundering money for al-Nusra.

Ans Boersma comes from a very different background.  She was raised in a Dutch Christian family.  She obtained a B.A. in journalism from a respected Christian college.  What could possibly connect her to a Syrian jihadist?  It turns out that Abdelaziz was once her boyfriend.

That might seem extremely unlikely at first glance.  It’s not.  I lived in the Netherlands for several years.  I never met Ans Boersma, but we moved in the same circles, and I met plenty of people like her.  To understand how a girl from a solid Dutch Christian background could land herself in a major terrorism investigation, it is important to consider the environment that produced her.

In Christian circles, the Netherlands is famed for its Reformational tradition.  After I moved there in 2008, however, it became clear to me that these days most Dutch churches are hotbeds of left-wing political activism, particularly when it comes to immigration.  On one of my very first Sundays at a Dutch church, I heard a sermon in which the pastor told us that if we oppose government aid for developing countries, we are racists.  “You think to yourself, ‘Oh those people should just all kill each other,’” he said.

Another church I visited showed a clip from Barack Obama’s first inaugural address during the service in lieu of a Bible reading.

After more than a year of searching, I found my way to the International Christian Fellowship in Utrecht, part of the Christian Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.  Politics was absent from the pulpit of the ICF, but certainly not from the pews.  By that point, I had accepted that pro-refugee activism was unavoidable in a Dutch church, and I would simply need to tolerate it.  The ICF offered many good things: solid Biblical preaching, warm fellowship, and genuine enthusiasm for the Christian Faith—in stark contrast to the defeatist mood that prevails in many churches in the Netherlands.

The Dutch members of our church were often deeply involved in assisting refugees who had arrived from the Middle East and northern Africa.  At one point, the church leadership informally encouraged us all to join a pro-refugee event that involved being locked up in a fake jail cell for a short period.  (I declined.) 

I recently read about a group of Dutch Christians who drove down to Greece over Christmas with the intention of finding 150 refugees and bringing them back to the Netherlands.  Ultimately, they failed to collect a single person.  I don’t know if anyone from the ICF participated, but it sounds like the sort of initiative they would have loved.

Many of the non-Dutch attendees of our church were actual refugees.  The ICF was originally founded to welcome residents of the local refugee center, located just a few blocks from the church building.

As I followed Ans Boersma’s case, I kept thinking of one of my best friends at the church.  She was the daughter of a wealthy Dutch Christian family.  She started her career as a social worker in a refugee center, but concluded she could not make much of an impact on refugees who were already adults.  Thus, she became a teacher at an elementary school that caters mainly to the children of immigrants.  She subsequently married a Syrian refugee.

Like a typical Dutch Christian, Boersma was passionate about helping Middle Eastern refugees.  Before moving to Istanbul, she was the press officer for a charity that aids refugees.  In 2015, she even spent her vacation volunteering on a Greek island where large numbers of refugees were arriving by boat.  According to Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf, upon her return she posted on Facebook, “The term ‘terrorist’ no longer has any meaning for me.  Neither does ‘evil.’  Because both words are selectively applied.”

In an interview after her expulsion from Turkey, Boersma disclosed that she met Abdelaziz in 2013.  She was on a trip to Istanbul paid for by a Dutch government program for promising young journalists.  They sat next to each other on the bus and started chatting.  That story is hardly improbable.  When I lived in the Netherlands, my housemate and her friend took a week-long vacation to Istanbul.  I was astonished when they came back with the news that they had both acquired Turkish boyfriends during their stay.  Those relationships eventually ended over cultural differences.

Abdelaziz moved to the Netherlands in 2014 on a fake passport.  Dutch authorities suspect Boersma of helping him obtain false documents, which he used to secure a residence visa.  She claims the only thing she did was sponsor an application that he made for a tourist visa—which was denied.  She believed the passport he used for that application was authentic.

Boersma and Abdelaziz broke up in 2015.  She moved to Istanbul, while he embraced life in Amsterdam.  Dutch media have gleefully nicknamed him the “hipster jihadist” for his apparent love of music festivals and yogurt bars.

Boersma says he admitted to her that he had been involved in the resistance against President Assad.  But he had told her that “he had no blood on his hands and never committed any human rights violations,” she says.  Dutch authorities tapped his phone before his arrest.  They claim that in one call Abdelaziz told his brother about an incident in which Boersma found incriminating material on his iPad.  “I swore I would never slaughter again.  Not one man, not one woman.  No one,” he claimed to have told her in the tapped call.

Boersma vehemently denies such an event ever happened.  She is fighting to clear her name, filing a lawsuit against the Dutch government and giving interviews to tell her side of the story.  It remains to be seen if she will face charges.

Abdelaziz’s case has inflamed the already volatile Dutch debate over immigration.  Far-right politicians like Geert Wilders had warned that jihadists would enter the country pretending to be refugees.  Did Abdelaziz prove Wilders right?

It is unlikely that many Dutch Christians will change their views on refugees.  As one recently told me, “A small number of abuses have given everyone a bad name.”

International media coverage of the Netherlands often focuses on the far-right, anti-immigration movement led by Geert Wilders and Thierry Baudet.  However, the country also has a significant pro-immigration faction—in which Christians play an important role.  In the Dutch Parliament, the Christian Union party (CU) is one of the strongest advocates of pro-refugee policies.  The Christian Democratic Appeal party (CDA) is also pro-refugee, but to a lesser degree.

The CU and CDA are part of the current governing coalition in the Dutch parliament along with Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy and the D66 party.  Interestingly, D66 is the most socially progressive of all of them.  They are currently trying to legalize euthanasia for anyone age 75 and over, no terminal illness required.  During the negotiations to form the coalition, many political observers wondered how on earth D66 could govern together with two Christian parties.  The answer was simple: They agreed on immigration policy.

Thierry Baudet, leader of the far-right Forum for Democracy party and self-professed atheist, has some good insights into Dutch Christian politics.  “The only thing [the CU and CDA] know about Christianity is ‘love thy neighbor.’  Turn the other cheek.  It’s a type of pacifism,” he said at a public debate in December.

Baudet often talks about the importance of respecting the Netherlands’ Christian heritage.  He sees immigration from the Middle East as a threat to that.  Ironically, professing Christians are among his most vociferous dissenters.

Attending the ICF gave me the opportunity to interact with actual refugees and learn about the complexity of their situations.  I became friends with a woman from Syria and visited her a couple times at the refugee center where she lived.  It was a scary, decrepit building.  She told me residents were required to attend a weekly roll call where they were identified by their fingerprints.

My Syrian friend came to the Netherlands after she married a Dutch man.  She told me he left her after she needed a double mastectomy for breast cancer.  My relations with her were largely confined to 2010 when Syria still appeared to be peaceful.  But she said she could not return home owing to the shame of having been rejected by her husband.  Since they had married only in Syria, her marriage was not recognized under Dutch law.  If she wanted to stay, her only option was to apply for refugee status.

At our church, I also met a man who had fled Iraq because he said he was a Christian.  He told me his uncle had been beheaded.  However, I was appalled when he told me he had left his wife and three children behind.  His plan was to gain a residence visa and then bring them over.

Both the Syrian woman and the Iraqi man had been living in the refugee center for over two years.  From what they told me, there was no end in sight to their applications for residence visas.  In fact, all the refugees at our church existed in this state of limbo.  They were housed in a quasi-prison, given just enough to keep them alive, but nothing more.

Every Dutch government promises to fix the application process—to make it faster and more humane.  No one ever succeeds.  The de facto solution that has emerged is amnesty.  In 2003, amnesty was granted to 2,200 refugees.  The government assured the public that this was a “one-time arrangement” to clear up the backlog so that a new, faster system could be implemented.  In fact, it only served to pave the way for a much bigger amnesty for 28,000 refugees in 2006.

And then there is the difficult question of children who grow up in the Netherlands while their families’ applications drag on for years.  Pro-refugee advocates argue that children who are deported after becoming rooted in Dutch society suffer irreparable psychological harm.

In 2013, the Dutch government granted amnesty to 1,540 minors (plus their families).  The government imposed strict rules for all future applications by minors—too strict, it turns out.  Over 90 percent of the subsequent applications by minors were rejected.

Hence, the drumbeat started for a new amnesty for minors.  The Christian Union party led the charge.  Last September, the case of Lili, 12, and Howick, 13, from Armenia dominated Dutch headlines.  The siblings, who had lived most of their lives in the Netherlands, were scheduled for deportation to join their mother, who had already been sent back.  Following a public outcry, they were granted a special exemption at the 11th hour.  A month later, pro-refugee activists embraced the cause of the Tamrazyan family, also from Armenia.  The family had been living in the Netherlands for nine years before being ordered to leave.  They have three children, ages 21, 19, and 15.  The oldest daughter is a CU activist.

An old Dutch custom forbids police from interrupting an ongoing church service to seize people for deportation.  Thus, the Tamrazyan family sought shelter in a church in The Hague, which organized a “service without end” to protect them.  Over the course of 96 days, over 1,000 pastors—some from as far away as the United States—came to lead the service that continued day and night.

The Christian Union and D66 demanded a new amnesty for minors that would help the Tamrazyan family.  The Christian Democratic Party was initially opposed.  They had gained seats in the last election by taking a tougher line on immigration.  As the “service without end” continued, however, the pressure became too great and the CDA changed their stance.  Prime Minister Rutte acquiesced, but only with a strict promise that this amnesty would be the last one.

The new amnesty for minors and Ans Boersma’s expulsion from Turkey occurred around the same time, but most people did not connect them.  That’s a shame because they are, in fact, part of the same story.  She’s a prime example of the kind of person who helped orchestrate the new amnesty.  Dutch Christians have a dream of helping the weak and vulnerable.  That’s laudable.  But Boersma’s example shows that sometimes a dream can turn into a nightmare.