Small town of Urk exemplifies pious heart of the Dutch Christian right

Urk, Netherlands - Though its population is not quite 18,000, the Dutch town of Urk already has more Protestant churches than some small cities.

For this remote and traditional fishing community, though, 19 established places of worship are not enough, so plans are afoot to build two more.

An hour's drive from Amsterdam, where marijuana is sold openly in coffee shops and prostitution is legal, Urk is one of Europe's most God-fearing places.

Thousands here spurn television, theater, movies and dancing. Many dress in black and attend three hours of church services on Sunday. And some refuse to immunize their children or buy insurance because they believe this interferes with the will of God.

In recent years, the murder of two critics of Islam - Pim Fortuyn, a flamboyant gay politician and opponent of immigration, and Theo van Gogh, a film director - convulsed the Netherlands, prompting a vivid debate about national identity and the assimilation of minorities in Dutch cities.

But Urk is part of a different Netherlands, the heartland of the country's Christian right, which has two political parties, one of which holds the post of deputy prime minister in the coalition government.

If this town illustrates anything about the famed tolerance of the Dutch - a multicultural nation of 16 million, more than three million of whom have a foreign background - it shows that it is based more on co-existence than on a desire for social integration.

While church attendance around Europe is declining, in Urk, religion has remained a pillar of society. Preachers estimate that 97 percent of the town attends a Sunday service. Because there are so many believers, theological differences matter enough to prompt a remarkable splintering of the Protestant faith.

In the Netherlands overall, seven out of 10 people hardly ever attend religious services, according to statistics for 2003. One reason Urk has defied modern, secular trends lies in the fact that it was an island off the coast until 1939, when land was reclaimed from the sea.

The town has a distinct dialect and unique expressions often derived from seafaring. One old Urk saying goes: "Backing winds and pleasure-seeking women cannot be trusted." On one side, Urkers are connected to the mainland through reclaimed land, while the town's harbor, once a seaport, borders a large freshwater lake called IJsselmeer. Urk's fishermen now travel across the country to boats moored in other ports.

Socially conservative, Urk is overwhelmingly white ethnically (estimates of the number of immigrants vary from 20 to 60, including a handful of Muslims). Cohabitation before marriage is almost unknown, women marry young and families are often large. One couple in Urk has 18 children.

The town has no Roman Catholic church, no synagogue and no mosque. But drive down De Noord Street and, within three blocks, you can count seven Protestant places of worship.

In the living room of his home, William Middelkoop draws a diagram with 12 interwoven lines to depict the evolution of Urk's churches, which have splintered since the 1960s owing to a variety of theological disputes.

At present, 19 churches have buildings. Of the three with no permanent home, two are planning to build, including the Ichtus church of which Middlekoop is pastor.

His congregation of 800 meets in a sports hall, but has just received planning permission to redevelop a building into a church. The project will cost €4 million, or $5.7 million, and should be completed by the middle of 2009.

Middelkoop, 42, who was born in Rotterdam, regrets the splintering of the churches over disputes about interpretation of the Scriptures.

"Satan is laughing when he sees this," said Middelkoop. But, he added, the question is: "Can you be part of a church that gives room to unbiblical preachers?"

One of the most significant theological rows of the mid-20th century in the Netherlands centered on whether the story of Adam and Eve should be taken literally; in particular, on whether the serpent actually spoke.

The Reformed and Christian Reformed churches in Urk survived that debate relatively united, but they have fractured since the 1960s over how much free thinking and liberal theology to tolerate.

Ichtus emerged from an alliance of churches, some of which permit worshipers to doubt the literal words of the Scriptures. Not a strict church by Urk's standards, its congregation can drive on Sundays and watch television.

But Middelkoop still warns his followers to resist temptation. "You have the law of the Lord," he argues, "you have to look at TV with the 10 Commandments of the Lord in your head and your eyes and ears. When you have the remote control in your hand you must not think 'wow,' but 'what kind of decision would Jesus Christ make?' "

The pastor of Urk's strictest church, Jachin Boaz, declined an interview request. But one former member of the congregation, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of offending the church hierarchy, recalled that "as a child we had no TV, no pop music and no films. We wore dark clothes on Sunday."

But this is a close and supportive community, where people know their neighbors. "I had a good childhood," he says. "If you don't have a TV, you read a book or talk to your brothers and sisters, your husband or your wife. If you have a TV, you look only at the TV."

How has Urk managed to remain in another age when it is so close to Holland's big cities, its centers of temptation? The answer is that it hasn't, not entirely.

With a high birth rate and a large youth population, Urk has a documented problem with alcohol and drugs, one that becomes more evident on Fridays and Saturdays when fishermen return home.

"A lot of young people are drinking too much, people are using drugs," said Jaap Bakker, a former elder of the Bethelkerk church and a retired social worker, sitting on the terrace of his son's house. "What happens in Amsterdam also happens in Urk."

But at the town's museum, the curator, Hans Besselink, says one of the things that makes Urk different is that those who misbehave on a Saturday night will invariably be in church the following morning.

Fiercely independent, Urk's faithful do not want to be told how to worship, and "if you are unhappy in a theological dispute, nobody minds if you start a new denomination," he said.

Urk's believers, Besselink said, do not try to convert people and "are very tolerant toward outside cultures" so long as they can protect their own way of life.

Tolerance, he said, is a virtue, but it "can also mean a lack of interest."