There were no reports of abuses of religious freedom, but the government imposed restrictions that affected members of minority religious groups. These effectively denied them full exercise of their religious beliefs.
Some observers opposed to a new criminal code amendment expressed concern that its vaguely-worded text protecting “vulnerable persons” could be misused by the government against certain religious groups. However, others argued that the potential for abuse was low, despite the vague terms, because there was a strict standard for what would constitute a violation. No misuse was reported.
Members of some political parties appealed to anti-Islamic sentiments during local elections. Activists from the far-right anti-immigrant party Vlaams Belang handed out pork sausages at a halal student barbecue, and their posters were often anti-Muslim. One of the party’s campaign mottos for the October 14 local election was “Freedom or Islam: Dare to Choose.” On September 27, a number of female Vlaams Belang politicians wore burqas in a local market and then conspicuously put them in a garbage can. In districts where Vlaams Belang had strong support, centrist politicians tended to be more willing to support headscarf bans in schools and local government offices. Political opponents criticized Interior Minister Joelle Milquet of the centrist Democratic Humanist Party (CDH) for supporting reasonable accommodation for Muslims in schools and public swimming pools.
Most Muslim women wearing headscarves faced obstacles when running for public office in the October 14 local and provincial elections. The CDH removed Layla Azzouzi, formerly a CDH candidate in Verviers, from the party because she would not remove her headscarf. The CDH also compelled party member Hajib El Hajjaji to leave for publicly disagreeing with the policy.
City and town administrations at times withheld approval or were slow to approve construction of new mosques and Muslim cultural centers. Projects in Charleroi, Liege, and Namur faced administrative obstacles and public opposition.
Police continued to enforce a 2011 federal ban on covering one’s face in public. The law was widely understood to target Muslim women wearing the burqa or niqab. In 2011 police filed 34 reports for violating the law. Women who wore the full face veil in public faced a maximum fine of 150 euros ($198). In June a member of Vlaams Belang offered a bounty of 250 euros ($330) to anyone who reported a veiled woman to the police. In July the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner criticized several European nations, including Belgium, for legislation affecting Muslims, focusing on the “burqa ban.”
The Constitutional Court heard five cases challenging the law’s compatibility with the constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights. The court rejected two injunctions for suspension and on December 6 ruled that the “burqa ban” did not violate religious freedom, despite strong objections by the Center for Equal Opportunities and many constitutional scholars. The court likewise ruled that even if the law were considered a violation of religious freedom, such a violation would be justified in the name of public security and ensuring equality between men and women. The court also stated that expressing one’s individuality through one’s face was a requirement for “living together” in an open, democratic society. Many legal experts said the decision was driven more by political considerations than constitutional ones.
Muslim women working in the public sector faced increasing restrictions on the wearing of headscarves in positions requiring interaction with the public. Many public schools enacted policies restricting headscarves, prompting some female Muslim students in Antwerp to engage in homeschooling. At least 90 percent of public schools sponsored by the francophone community banned headscarves. The newly elected coalition in the commune of Verviers announced its intention to ban the wearing of veils in local schools. Likewise, virtually all Flemish public schools ban headscarves. Many political parties favored at least a partial ban on headscarves that would prohibit women and girls from wearing a head covering until reaching a certain age or completing a certain level of education. Legal experts questioned this policy’s compatibility with the constitution and the European Convention of Human Rights.
The government continued to fund the Center for Information and Advice on Harmful Sectarian Organizations, which collected publicly available information on a wide range of religious and philosophical groups, and provided information on religious groups. Some groups, particularly the Church of Scientology and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, argued that the mere existence of the center carried a stigma for the groups on which it provided information. However, these groups did not file complaints of discrimination.
Recognized religious groups received approximately 645 million euros ($851 million) in official subsidies during the year. A 2011 study of total public contributions at all levels of government (including tax exemptions or payment of wages and pensions) noted that approximately 86 percent of public support went to the Catholic Church and 2 percent to Islam, although the population was approximately 50 percent Catholic and 6 percent Muslim. Non-Catholics and public financing experts urged the government to disburse public funds in a manner more accurately reflecting the population distribution of religious groups, but the government continued to fund the Catholic Church disproportionately while underfunding Muslim groups.
The Muslim Executive functioned as the official interlocutor between public authorities and the Muslim community. The government’s withdrawal of funding from the group in 2011 rendered it temporarily incapable of action, conferred essential tasks onto the president and vice president, and deprived Muslims of a practical mechanism for recognizing additional imams and mosques or providing state-supported training of imams. In September the justice minister granted the Muslim Executive a 280,000 euro ($368,420) subsidy to cover basic expenditures, such as staff salaries, after the group addressed some internal administrative problems. In May police searched Muslim Executive offices after the former vice president filed a complaint that the group’s general assembly had illegitimately removed her from the board.
The government provided subsidies to Buddhists to help facilitate the institutional capacity building needed for formal recognition as a “non-confessional philosophical community.”
On December 28, the federal prosecutor announced plans to sue the Belgian subsidiary of the Church of Scientology as a criminal organization, based on allegations of extortion, fraud, illegally practicing medicine, and invasion of privacy. The next day, a Scientology spokesperson stated that “it is not the first time that media publish accusations on us before we have been notified. This goes against the presumption of innocence and the Declaration of Human Rights that Belgium signed.” The group filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights in response.
During a September ceremony in the Dossin Barracks in Mechelen, Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo apologized for the country’s involvement in the deportation of Jews during World War II. In September the mayor of Brussels apologized for the involvement of municipal authorities in World War II deportations. On November 26, King Albert II attended the opening of the Dossin museum, dedicated to Holocaust remembrance and human rights.