The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice; however, the Government took action against groups that it considers "harmful sects."
There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report, and government policy continued to contribute to the generally free practice of religion.
There are generally amicable relations among different religious groups in society; however, several religious groups complain of discrimination, particularly groups that have not been accorded official "recognized" status by the Government, and those associated primarily with immigrant communities.
The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.
Section I. Religious Demography
The country has a total area of 12,566 square miles and its population is approximately 10.3 million.
The population is predominantly Roman Catholic. Approximately 75 percent of the population nominally belongs to the Catholic Church. The Muslim population numbers approximately 350,000, approximately 90 percent of whom are Sunni. Protestants number between 90,000 and 100,000. The Greek and Russian Orthodox churches have approximately 100,000 adherents. The Jewish population is estimated at 40,000, and the Anglican Church has approximately 21,000 members. The largest nonrecognized religions are Jehovah's Witnesses, with approximately 27,000 baptized members, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), with approximately 3,000 members. According to the Government, nonconfessional philosophical organizations (or "laics") have 350,000 members; however, the laics claim 1.5 million members. Unofficial estimates indicate that approximately 10 percent of the population does not identify with any religion.
According to a 1999 survey by an independent academic group, only 11.2 percent of the population attend weekly religious services. However, religion still does play a role in major life events--65 percent of the children born in the country are baptized; 49.2 percent of couples opt for a religious marriage; and 76.6 percent of funerals include religious services.
Section II. Status of Religious Freedom
The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice.
The Government accords "recognized" status to Roman Catholicism, Protestantism (including evangelicals), Judaism, Anglicanism, Islam, and Orthodox Christianity (Greek and Russian). These religions receive subsidies from government revenues. The Government also supports the freedom to participate in laic organizations. These secular humanist groups serve as a seventh recognized "religion" and their organizing body, the Central Council of Non-Religious Philosophical Communities of Belgium, receives funds and benefits similar to those of the six other recognized religions.
By law each recognized religion has the right to provide teachers at government expense for religious instruction in schools. The Government also pays the salaries, retirement, and lodging costs of ministers and subsidizes the construction and renovation of church buildings for recognized religions. The ecclesiastical administrations of recognized religions have legal rights and obligations, and the municipality in which they are located must pay any debts that they incur. Some subsidies are the responsibility of the federal government while the regional and municipal governments pay others. According to an independent academic review, government at all levels spent $523 million (23 billion Belgian francs) on subsidies for recognized religions in 2000. Of that amount, 79.2 percent went to the Catholic Church, 13 percent to secular humanist groups, 3.5 percent to Muslims, 3.2 percent to Protestants, 0.6 percent to Jews, 0.4 percent to Orthodox Christians, and 0.1 percent to Anglicans. During 2001, the Muslim Executive Council applied for the first time for subsidies, and the Government announced that in 2002 it would recognize 75 mosques and pay salaries to imams assigned to these mosques. The Council, which is recognized by the Government, received funding; however, specific mosques and religious schools, which have not yet been proposed by the Council and thus are not recognized by the Government, received no funding. Taxpayers who object to contributing to these subsidies may initiate legal proceedings to challenge their contributions.
The Government applies the following five criteria in deciding whether or not to grant recognition to a religious group: 1) the religion must have a structure or hierarchy; 2) the group must have a sufficient number of members; 3) the religion must have existed in the country for a long period of time; 4) it must offer a social value to the public; and 5) the religion must abide by the laws of the State and respect public order. The five criteria are not listed in decrees or laws. The law does not define "sufficient," "a long period of time," or "social value." A religious group seeking official recognition applies to the Ministry of Justice, which then conducts a thorough review before recommending approval or rejection. Final approval of recognized status is the sole responsibility of the Parliament; however, the Parliament generally accepts the decision of the Ministry of Justice. A group whose application is refused by the Ministry of Justice may appeal the decision to the Council of State.
The lack of recognized status does not prevent religious groups from practicing their faith freely and openly. Nonrecognized groups do not qualify for government subsidies; however, they may qualify for tax-exempt status as nonprofit organizations.
Restrictions on Religious Freedom
In response to a number of highly publicized mass suicides and murders in France, Switzerland, and Canada by members of the Solar Temple cult (including some Belgian citizens who were leaders and members) in the mid-1990s, the Parliament in 1996 established a special Commission to examine the potential dangers that sects may represent to society, especially children, and to recommend policies to deal with those dangers. The Commission's 1997 report divided sects into two broadly defined categories. The Commission considered as the first category of sects (defined as "organized groups of individuals espousing the same doctrine with a religion") to be respectable and to reflect the normal exercise of freedom of religion and assembly provided for by fundamental rights. The second category, "harmful sectarian organizations," are defined as groups having or claiming to have a philosophical or religious purpose whose organization or practice involves illegal or injurious activities, harms individuals or society, or impairs human dignity. Attached to the report was a list of 189 sectarian organizations that were mentioned during testimony before the Commission (including groups such as Jehovah's Witnesses, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Church of Scientology, and the Young Women's Christian Association). Although the introduction to the list clearly stated that there was no intent to characterize any of the groups as "dangerous," the list quickly became known in the press and to the public as the "dangerous sects" list. The Parliament eventually adopted several of the report's recommendations but never adopted the list itself.
Some religious groups included in the 1997 parliamentary list continue to complain that their inclusion has resulted in discriminatory action against them. For example, in November 2001, the Church of Scientology was informed on the morning of a scheduled press conference that it could not use the International Press Center to announce its suit against the Commission's 1997 sect list. A representative of the Center reportedly cited the presence of the Church of Scientology on the list as a reason for the cancellation. However, several months later, the Center reviewed the refusal and decided that in the future the Church of Scientology could use the facilities. In October 2001, a non-profit bank, Fonds du Logement des Familles Nombreuses de Wallonie, rejected an application for a low-interest, government-subsidized home loan from a devotee of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), commonly known as the Hare Krishna group. The bank's rejection letter cited ISKCON's financial interest as the seller of the home, ISKCON's inclusion on the parliamentary Commission's sect list, and a fear of financing the ISKCON movement as reasons for the loan refusal. In November 2001, according to press reports the City of Liege canceled an ISKCON permit to distribute free vegetarian food under the "Hare Krishna Food for Life" program, a weekly practice begun in 1997. The City reportedly cited disturbance of public order as the basis for the withdrawal of the permit.
Some courts in the Flanders region continued to stipulate, in the context of child custody proceedings and as a condition of granting visitation rights, that a noncustodial parent who is a member of Jehovah's Witnesses may not expose his or her children to the teachings or lifestyle of that religious group during visits. These courts have claimed that such exposure would be harmful to the child; however, other courts have not imposed this restriction.
One of the primary recommendations of the 1997 parliamentary report was the creation of a government-sponsored Center for Information and Advice on Harmful Sectarian Organizations. The Center was open to the public in July 2000. The Center collects publicly available information on a wide range of religious and philosophical groups and provides information and advice to the public upon request regarding the legal rights of freedom of association, privacy, and freedom of religion. The Center's library is open to the public and contains information on religion in general as well as on specific religious groups including information provided by various groups. The Center is authorized to share with the public any information it collects on religious sects; however, it is not authorized to provide assessments of individual sectarian organizations to the general public and despite its name, the regulations prohibit it from categorizing any particular group as harmful.
The law creating the Center stipulates that the harmful nature of a sectarian group is to be evaluated in reference to principles contained in the Constitution, orders, laws, decrees, and in international human rights instruments ratified by the Government. The Center is required by law to publish a report on its activities every 2 years. In December 2002, the Center released its first report, covering the period from 1999 to 2000. The report reviewed the laws creating the Center, meetings in which the Center participated, and its projects. The report identified two responses by the Center to specific government requests: a "favorable" opinion of the European Center for Research and Information on Sectarianism in response to an inquiry from the Foreign Ministry and a "favorable" opinion of the Mormon Church in response to an inquiry from the Ministry of the Interior. The report also recommended that the Ministry of Justice draft a law to prohibit the abuse of a situation of "weakness."
An interagency coordination group designed to work in conjunction with the Center to coordinate government policy meets quarterly to exchange information on sect activities. The Government also has designated a national magistrate and 1 magistrate in each of the 27 judicial districts to monitor cases involving sects.
The 1997 parliamentary report also recommended that the country's municipal governments sponsor information campaigns to educate the public, especially children, about the phenomenon of harmful sects. A 1998 law formally charges the country's State Security with the duty of monitoring harmful sectarian organizations as potential threats to the internal security of the country. This law uses the same language as the Parliamentary Commission's report and defines "harmful sectarian organizations" as any religious or philosophical group that, through its organization or practices, engages in activities that are illegal, injurious, or harmful to individuals or society. A subgroup of law enforcement officials meets bi-monthly to exchange information on sect activities. Most law enforcement agencies have an official specifically assigned to handle sect issues.
The Government permits religious instruction in public schools; however, students are not required to attend religion classes. Public school religion teachers are nominated by a committee from their religious group and appointed by the Minister of Education. All public schools have a teacher for each of the six recognized religions. A seventh choice, a nonconfessional course, is available if the child does not wish a religious course. Private Catholic schools receive government subsidies for working expenses and teacher salaries.
In February 2001 the Church of Scientology took legal action to force the return of documents including parishioners' confidential spiritual counseling folders seized in a 1999 police raid of church facilities and the homes and businesses of approximately 20 members. No arrests were made or charges filed against church members as a result of the original raid. The Church of Scientology also filed a complaint asserting that the Prosecutor's Office provided prejudicial statements to the press in violation of the country's secrecy laws regarding investigations. A second, smaller raid on the Church of Scientology's Brussels headquarters took place on February 8, 2001 and additional documents were seized. Most of the seized computer equipment was returned to the Church; however, the investigating magistrate continued to hold the documents from both raids at the end of the period covered by this report. On March 6, 2001, the Church filed a complaint against the Government with the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance. On January 30, 2002, the Brussels Appellate Court ruled that the personal files were held lawfully by the investigating magistrate, that the Church compiled and maintained personal information in violation of privacy laws, and that the court was under no obligation to return the files.
After having suspended issuances from April to July 2000, the Government again suspended the issuance of visas to Mormon missionaries in November 2001. Although similar visas had been processed for decades without problems, the Government attributed the change in policy to the Foreign Worker's Act of 1999 requirement that religious workers obtain work permits before applying for a visa to enter the country for religious work. Mormon missionaries were told that they should reapply for visas after obtaining the appropriate work permits. However, since Mormon missionaries are strictly volunteers who pay their own way and receive no salary or subsidy from the Church, they do not qualify for the required work permit. Negotiations between representatives of the Mormons and the Ministry of Interior, facilitated by the U.S. Embassy, led to a resumption of the issuance of visas in July 2000 under special temporary procedures. The Government halted the issuance of visas to Mormon missionaries under these temporary procedures in November 2001. After further meetings with Embassy and Mormon Church representatives, in June 2002, the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs agreed to exempt volunteer Mormon missionaries from the certificate requirement and to process all 85 pending visa applications.
In February 2002, police detained five American volunteer workers at an Assemblies of God school and media center for working without employment permits; four were deported shortly thereafter. The law requires employment permits, even for volunteers. However, since Assemblies of God volunteers pay their own way and receive no salary they do not qualify for the required work permit. The church leaders closed the school for the spring term in the wake of the deportations. The Assemblies of God is a member of the Evangelical Synod which in turn is represented on the officially recognized Protestant Synod. The Assemblies of God also is included on the parliamentary Commission's 1997 sect list. At the end of the period covered by this report, church officials continued to work with the Government to satisfy employment and immigration law requirements.
There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.
Forced Religious Conversion
There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.
Section III. Societal Attitudes
There are generally amicable relations among different religious groups in society; however, several religious groups complain of discrimination, particularly groups which have not been accorded official "recognized" status by the Government and those associated primarily with immigrant communities.
In the spring of 2002, several anti-Semitic incidents directed at Jewish communities occurred, including a pro-Palestinian riot in Antwerp in April and firebombings of synagogues in Brussels and Antwerp. Unknown persons fired automatic gunfire at a synagogue in Charleroi. Government officials strongly criticized the attacks on the Jewish community and increased security around synagogues and Jewish community buildings.
The President of the Muslim Executive Council reported increased anti-Islamic sentiment after the Fall of 2001. For example, a clearly deranged man attacked his Muslim neighbors in Brussels before committing suicide.
The President of the Muslim Executive Council reported that women and girls wearing traditional dress or headscarves in some cases face discrimination in private employment even though the law does not prohibit such dress. In January 2001, the Court of Cassation, the nation's highest court, ruled that municipal authorities could not deny an identification card to a woman wearing a headscarf.
At the national level, there is an annual general assembly of the National Ecumenical Commission to discuss various religious themes. The Catholic Church sponsors working groups at the national level to maintain dialog and promote tolerance among all religious groups. At the local level, every Catholic diocese has established Commissions for interfaith dialog.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy
The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.
U.S. Embassy representatives discussed the issue of religious freedom throughout the period covered by this report with officials from the Ministries of Justice, Foreign Affairs, and Interior, as well as with Members of Parliament. Embassy officials also expressed concern regarding anti-Semitic incidents. There is an ongoing dialog between the Embassy and the Ministry of Justice at the cabinet level regarding the implementation of recommendations of the 1997 parliamentary report on sectarian organizations. Embassy officials also met regularly with the Director of the Center for Information and Advice on Harmful Sectarian Organizations and closely monitored the Center's activities. Embassy officials continued to monitor the Government's progress toward implementing a permanent solution to the Mormon visa problem and the issuance of work permits for volunteer religious workers.
Embassy officials met with representatives of both recognized and nonrecognized religions that reported some form of discrimination during the period covered by this report.