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 observe and monitor groups that a parliamentary commission's unofficial report labeled "harmful sects."
The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom; however, several religious groups, particularly Jews and Muslims, as well as religious groups that have not been accorded official "recognized" status by the Government, cited instances of discrimination by the public and government officials.
The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights. During the reporting period covered by this report, the U.S. Government urged government officials to intensify their efforts to fight anti-Semitism and to work to resolve problems with Church of Scientology officials.
Section I. Religious Demography
The country has a total area of 11,780square 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. According to these figures, 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 belongs to organized laity.
According to a 1999 survey by an independent academic group, 11.2 percent of the Roman Catholic population attends weekly religious services; the Catholic Church has estimated that church attendance ranges between 10-15 percent. However, religion still plays a role in major life events. As of 1999, with regard to the Catholic population, 65 percent of the children born in the country were baptized; 49.2 percent of couples opted for a religious marriage; and 76.6 percent of funerals included 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 and Pentecostals), Judaism, Anglicanism, Islam, and Orthodox Christianity (Greek and Russian). Representative bodies for 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 of those faiths. 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 public 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 in 2000, 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 five criteria in deciding whether 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 it 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 a religious group from practicing its 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 (MEC), 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. Subsidies have never been paid to mosques and imams, despite the Government's official recognition in 1999 that the MEC would serve as the administrative instrument for distributing government subsidies. Three issues have caused delay in paying subsidies to mosques and imams; two were unresolved at the time of this report. The first issue, election of a new Muslim Executive Council, was resolved but not as preferred by the MEC. The term of the interim MEC expired on May 31, but disputes between the MEC and the federal Government over election procedures have delayed holding new elections. The second problem is constitutional. The federal Government devolved responsibility for the construction and maintenance of mosques to the regional governments in 2003, but, at the end of the period covered by this report, none of the regional governments had passed the necessary implementing legislation. Finally, the MEC and the federal and regional governments must reach agreement on a list of mosques and imams that are eligible for funding.
In 1993 the Government established by law the Center for Equal Opportunity and the Struggle against Racism. Commonly known as the Anti-Racism Center, it is an independent agency responsible for all non-gender-related discrimination, including religious. Although formally part of the Office of the Prime Minister, it is under the guidance of the Ministry of Social Integration. Its head is appointed by the Prime Minister for 6 years, but the Prime Minister may not remove the individual once appointed. Several nongovernmental organizations such as the Movement Against Racism, Anti-Semitism, and Xenophobia (MRAX), the Ligue des Droits de l'Homme and the Liga voor Mensenrechten are also active in promoting religious freedom. The Government has volunteered to host an OSCE conference against Racism in September, as a follow-on to the May OSCE Anti-Semitism Conference in Berlin.
Restrictions on Religious Freedom
Government policy and practice contributed to the generally free practice of religion; however, the Government continued to observe and monitor some of the nonrecognized religious groups that were included in a 1997 parliamentary committee report on "harmful sects."
This special Parliamentary Commission was established to examine the potential dangers posed by sects and issued a report in 1997 that divided sects into two broadly defined categories. Although there are no illegal sects as such,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 as an annex an alphabetical list of 189 religious sectarian organizations with comments, including the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), 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 two of the report's recommendations, establishing two new bodies, but it never adopted the list, which has no legal standing.
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 2003,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 Government has not responded, claiming that there have been no official complaints.
As a result of the committee report, Parliament passed a law establishing two bodies: an observatory of harmful sects and an interagency coordinating group on harmful sects. The Center for Information and Advice on Harmful Sectarian Organizations 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.
The Interagency Coordination Group deals primarily with confidential material and works with the legal and security institutions of the Government to coordinate government policy.In theory it meets quarterly to exchange information on sect activities;however, it met only once during the period covered by this report. It produces no publicly available reports. The Government also has designated the Federal Prosecutor and a 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 Service 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 bimonthly to exchange information on sect activities. Most law enforcement agencies have an official specifically assigned to handle sect issues;however, they act only on the basis of filed complaints.
Although there have been no prosecutions of harmful sects, in June 2003, a prosecutor froze approximately $375,000 (326,000 euros) in a Church of Scientology bank account on suspicion of money laundering. Later in 2003, the prosecutor unfroze those funds; however, he continued to direct a criminal investigation into the Church of Scientology's operations on suspicion of fraud, privacy violations, and criminal association. The investigation began in 1999, and by the end of 2003, the investigating judge indicated that the investigation was nearly complete, and the case could go to trial in 2004; however, at the end of the period covered by this report, no formal charges had been filed.
One of the targets of the criminal investigation discovered in November2003 a report on the Church of Scientology compiled by the State Security Service. The report analyzed Church of Scientology activities and doctrine internationally as well as locally. Since late 2003, the Church of Scientology International has sought to establish a dialogue with the Government to address government information and analysis contained in this report and elsewhere.
Print and broadcast coverage of the September 17 opening of the Church of Scientology's European Office for Public Affairs and Human Rights in Brussels stated that the Government had declared the Church "harmful" in 1997. The opening of this office, in spite of that determination, was cited by at least one leading publication as reason to provide the Center for Information and Advice on Harmful Sects with additional resources. The Government did not publicly dispute these allegations; however, government officials regularly state that there is no official list of "harmful sects."
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 still had not been able to find an acceptable way for foreign volunteers to teach at the school.
The Mormon Church 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. As agreed, 85 pending visa applications were issued, and there do not appear to be any restrictions on the activities of visa recipients. In March 2003, Mormon Church representatives appealed to the Government to formalize the agreement in writing. At the end of the period covered by this report, there still wasno written agreement.
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, and other sources state that custody issues rather than religion prompted the decisions. Nevertheless, a Jehovah's Witnesses representative claimed that such court judgments have continued.
Religious or "moral" instruction is mandatory in public schools, provided according to the student's religious or nonreligious preference. All public schools offer a teacher for each of the six recognized religions. A seventh choice, a nonconfessional or secular moral instruction course, is available if the child does not wish to attend a religious course. Public school religion teachers are nominated by a committee from their religious group and appointed by the Minister of Education. Private authorized religious schools that follow the same curriculum as the public schools are known as "Free" schools, and they receive government subsidies for working expenses and teacher salaries. Almost all of these "free" schools are Roman Catholic and they offer only Roman Catholic religious instruction.
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.
Abuses by Terrorist Organizations
There were no reported abuses targeted at specific religions by terrorist organizations during the period covered by this report.
Section III. Societal Attitudes
The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom; however, several religious groups report incidents of discrimination, particularly Jews and Muslims, as well as religious groups that have not been accorded official "recognized" status by the Government.
The Jewish community is increasingly concerned about anti-Semitism. In late June, there were several incidents of physical attacks on Jewish citizens. These incidents were prominently covered in the national media. Members of the Jewish community claimed that individual incidents involving insults and harassment occurred throughout the period covered by this report. The Anti-Racism Center stated that it received 26 reports of anti-Semitic incidents in 2003. This is a reduction from 62 reports of anti-Semitic incidents in 2002. The Anti-Racism Center received 17 more complaints of anti-Semitic incidents between February and April.
The incidents appear to be generated largely from the Muslim immigrant community and inspired by events in the Middle East. The most violent attack during the reporting period occurred on June 24, when a number of youths, allegedly North African, assaulted four Jewish students as they departed their Jewish school in an Antwerp suburb; one fleeing student was stabbed and seriously injured. Jewish students at the school previously had been subjected to verbal insult and harassment from these youths. At the end of the period covered by this report, police continued to seek the assailants. Two days after the stabbing, there was a meeting at the Jewish martyrs' monument in Brussels that was attended by federal and regional ministers and representatives of major parties, institutions, and other religions, including the head of the MEC.
The federal Minister of Justice announced on June 26 that she would require investigating magistrates to prosecute those engaged in anti-Semitic acts whether verbal, physical, or on the Internet. That same evening three Jewish students from the school that the stabbing victim attended were harassed by four youths in a car. One fired what is believed to be a toy gun at the students before driving away; there were no injuries. Later that evening, elsewhere in the Antwerp suburbs, a 13-year-old Jewish boy was beaten by three youths. An 11-year-old Moroccan and two Belgians, ages 8 and 16, were arrested and charged with racism-motivated assault and battery by a court for youthful offenders; they were required to apologize to the victim andpay damages. Also that evening, several immigrant youths reportedly kicked a Jewish youth repeatedly on the main street of Antwerp, before escaping.
On June 28, at a demonstration to protest growing anti-Semitism, the mayor of Antwerp promised the city's Jewish community that the police would give the problem their highest priority. On June 29, the federal Minister of Interior announced increased police protection at places such as schools and synagogues frequented by the Jewish community and said that the federal Government would investigate other measures. On June 30, Prime Minister Verhofstadt met Jewish community leaders, expressed the Government's concern regarding the attacks, and noted the increased police protection. The following day, he told Parliament that such attacks were attacks on the country's fundamental values and institutions and would not be tolerated. The judicial system has been tasked with giving such attacks full priority. For example, in Brussels 61 investigations and an indictment are in process, with similar efforts underway in Antwerp. The Prime Minister also pledged to urge the regions to intensify educational efforts to counter anti-Semitism and racism. Jewish community leaders have indicated to foreign diplomatic observers that they were assured by government efforts, but they remained apprehensive regarding this outbreak of violence.
On January 28, during an indoor soccer match between Belgium and Israel, spectators with Hamas and Hizballah banners heckled the Israelis and shouted anti-Semitic slogans, some in Arabic. The city of Hasselt (where the match took place), the Anti-Racism Center, and a local Jewish organization filed a criminal complaint over the incident a few days later, which the police continue to pursue actively; the case is still under investigation. No arrests were made during the period covered by this report. In February a group of students at a Jewish school in Brussels were assaulted by youths from the neighborhood, which currently is inhabited primarily by Muslim immigrants.
In June 2003, there was an attempted car bombing at the synagogue in Charleroi. A perpetrator was apprehended at the time; he later was assessed as mentally incompetent and was institutionalized.
There also continue to be a few cases of anti-Semitic speech (although not attacks) generated from individuals from extreme right, neo-Nazi groups. These also are pursued by the Anti-Racism Center, which won a conviction in September 2003 against two Holocaust deniers, such denial being illegal in the country; the two were sentenced to a year in prison, a $561 (500 euro) fine, and the costs of the trial. Government officials continued to condemn strongly attacks on the Jewish community and maintained increased security around synagogues and Jewish community buildings. The Government has responded directly to Jewish community concern. The Prime Minister has received Jewish community representatives and pledged the Government's full attention to the problem, most recently on June 30; in May police protection was increased. The Minister of Social Integration convoked a working group, including the Ministers of Justice and Interior, enforcement agencies, the Anti-Racism Center, and representatives of the Jewish community. In May she also mandated the compilation of research on the problem and perceptions of it; the report is scheduled for publication in September.
The Center for Equal Opportunity and the Fight Against Racism, an independent government agency, reported that 7.5 percent of the discrimination complaints filed with the Center during 2002 cited religion as the basis of the alleged discrimination. In May the center released a report covering 2003 providing, among other topics, information on anti-Semitism.
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 dialogue and promote tolerance among all religious groups. At the local level, every Catholic diocese has established commissions for interfaith dialogue.
The President of the MEC maintains contacts with leaders of other faiths, including both recognized and unrecognized religious groups. Following the stabbing of the Jewish student on June 25 in Antwerp, he was seen on television with the Chief Rabbi at a public meeting in Brussels to denounce the attack.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy
The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.
U.S. Embassy representatives discussed the issue of religious freedom with officials from the Ministries of Justice, Foreign Affairs, Social Integration, and Interior, as well as with Members of Parliament, and regional and local officials.
Embassy officials expressed concern regarding anti-Semetic incidents and urged the Government to intensify its efforts to counter this trend. Embassy officials and the U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues also urged the Government to join the international Task Force on Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research. The Government has taken initial steps to join, including sending an observer to a Task Force meeting and beginning consultations with the regional and linguistic governments.
There is an ongoing dialogue between Embassy officials and the Ministry of Justice at the cabinet level regarding the effects of the recommendations of the (never voted-upon) 1997 parliamentary report on sectarian organizations. Embassy officials raised religious freedom issues at various levels. For example, the Embassy raised concerns of the Church of Scientology with the Federal Prosecutor's office. As part of ongoing efforts to find a permanent solution for Mormon, Assemblies of God, and other religious volunteers who have faced difficulties obtaining visas and residence permits for missionary or other volunteer religious work, Embassy officials sought written clarification from the Minister of Labor regarding the requirement for volunteers to obtain work permits. Communications between the Ministry of Labor and the Embassy on this issue were continuing at the end of the period covered by this report.
Embassy officials also met with representatives of both recognized and nonrecognized religions that reported some form of discrimination during the period covered by this report.