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; however, the Government continued to take action against groups that it considers "harmful sects."
The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom; however, several religious groups complained 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. According to the 2001 Survey and Study of Religion, jointly conducted by a number of the country's universities and based on self-identification, approximately 47 percent of the population identify themselves as belonging to the Catholic Church. The Muslim population numbers approximately 364,000, and there are an estimated 380 mosques in the country. Protestants number between 125,000 and 140,000. The Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches have approximately 70,000 adherents. The Jewish population is estimated at between 45,000 and 55,000. The Anglican Church has approximately 10,800 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.
Estimates indicate that approximately 15 percent of the population do not identify with any religion. Approximately 7.4 percent of the population describe themselves as laic (members of nonconfessional philosophical organizations), and another 1.1 percent belong to organized laity.
According to a 1999 survey by an independent academic group, only 11.2 percent of the population attend weekly religious services. However, religion still plays 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.
The Federal Government and Parliament have responsibility for recognizing faiths and paying the wages and pensions of ministers. As a result of constitutional reforms enacted by Parliament in 2001, religious teaching, accounting by religious groups, and religious buildings have become the jurisdiction of the regional governments. Laic organizations remain under the jurisdiction of the federal authorities.
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 religious 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, the Government at all levels spent $523 million (approximately 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 laic organizations, 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.
The Government applies the five criteria in deciding whether or not to grant recognition to a religious group: The religion must have a structure or hierarchy; the group must have a sufficient number of members; the religion must have existed in the country for a long period of time; it must offer a social value to the public; and the religion must abide by the laws of the State and respect public order. The five criteria are not listed in decrees or laws, and the Government does not formally define "sufficient," "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.
The Muslim Executive Council, the group recognized by the Government to represent the Islamic faith, received government funding during the period covered by this report, but mosques, imams, and Islamic schools and teachers did not. In June the Justice Ministry agreed on the composition of a new interim Muslim Executive Council, as well as a list of mosques, imams, and other Islamic institutions that would be eligible to receive government subsidies. Both issues remained under consideration by the Government at the end of the period covered by this report.
In 2003, the Justice Minister signed a Royal Decree on the partial renewal of the Muslim Executive Council. Elections for a new Muslim General Assembly, a wider representative body, are scheduled for 2004.
Restrictions on Religious Freedom
Government policy continued to contribute to the generally free practice of religion; however, the Government continued to take action against groups that it considers as "harmful sects."
A special Parliamentary Commission established to examine the potential dangers posed by sects issued a report in 1997 that divided sects into two broadly defined categories. The Commission defined the first category of "respectable" sects as "organized groups of individuals espousing the same doctrine with a religion," which reflect the normal exercise of freedom of religion and assembly provided for by fundamental rights. The Commission defined the second category, "harmful sectarian organizations," as groups having or claiming to have a philosophical or religious purpose and whose organization or practice involves illegal or injurious activities, harm to individuals or society, or impairment of human dignity. The report included a list of 189 sectarian organizations, including the 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 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 have continued to complain that their inclusion has resulted in discriminatory action against them. In July a report issued by the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights asserted that the Government had not taken any effective measures to counteract the hostility and discrimination suffered by members of religious groups depicted as "sects."
The 1997 parliamentary report led to the creation of a government-sponsored Center for Information and Advice on Harmful Sectarian Organizations, which 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 those groups. The Center has the authority to share with the public any information it collects on religious sects; however, it does not have the authority 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.
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 the Federal Prosecutor and 1 magistrate in each of the 27 judicial districts to monitor cases involving sects.
The 1997 parliamentary report also recommended that 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. 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.
In June a Prosecutor froze approximately $375,000 (326,000 euros) in a Church of Scientology bank account on suspicion of money laundering. The Prosecutor has directed a criminal investigation into the Church of Scientology's operations since 1999 on suspicion of fraud and privacy violations and criminal association. The Chamber of Indictment (a judicial panel that rules on the admissibility of charges formulated during a criminal investigation) returned the Church of Scientology file to the investigating judge and cleared the way for the case to proceed. The investigating judge indicated that the investigation was nearly complete, and the case could go to trial in 2004.
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. Assemblies of God teachers for years had obtained missionary visas, which do not require work permits. The Government now says that the teachers do not qualify for that status and must have work permits but have not identified a permit for which volunteer workers could apply. The Assemblies of God leaders closed the school in the wake of the deportations. At the end of the period covered by this report, the school remained closed, and Assemblies of God officials had still not been able to find an acceptable way for foreign volunteers to teach at the school.
The Church of Latter-day Saints continues to work to resolve the problem of obtaining visas for its missionaries. The Government had suspended visa issuance to Mormon missionaries for several months in 2000 and again beginning in November 2001. Mormon missionaries, who work as unpaid volunteers, do not qualify to obtain the work permits necessary to obtain visas under the Foreign Worker's Act of 1999, nor do they qualify for missionary visas due to the unrecognized status of the Church of Latter-day Saints. In June 2002, through the efforts of church officials and the U.S. Embassy, 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 March Mormon Church representatives appealed to the Government to formalize the agreement in writing. At the end of the period covered by this report, no written agreement had been obtained.
Some courts in the Flanders region have stipulated, 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.
In 2002 the Advisory Bio-Ethical Committee criticized the practice of requiring that a physician respect the decision of an adult Jehovah's Witness to refuse a life-saving blood transfusion.
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 offer 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. A few Catholic schools teach the Islamic faith, and the issue of whether Catholic schools should be obligated to offer religious teaching for other faiths was being discussed in the community and regional parliaments.
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
The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom; 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.
According to the country's Anti-Racism Center, complaints of anti-Semitic incidents continued to rise in 2003. In June the synagogue in Charleroi again was targeted--this time in a failed car bombing. Government officials continued to criticize strongly attacks on the Jewish community and maintained increased security around synagogues and Jewish community buildings.
The Center for Equal Opportunity and the Fight Against Racism, an independent government agency, reports that 7.5 percent of the discrimination complaints filed with the Center during 2002 cited religion as the basis of the alleged discrimination.
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 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 meet regularly with officials of the Government's interagency coordination group who monitor sect activities and coordinate government policy on this issue. 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.