The government imposed restrictions that affected members of minority religious groups, effectively denying them full exercise of their religious beliefs.
City and town administrations continued to withhold approval or were slow to approve construction of new mosques and Islamic cultural centers. Projects in Charleroi and Namur continued to face administrative obstacles and public opposition; however, construction of a mosque began in Liege.
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. Over the first six months of 2012, the last period for which statistics were available, police filed 20 reports on violations of the ban. Women who wore the full face veil in public faced a maximum fine of 150 euros ($207). In July the Council of Europe human rights commissioner criticized several European nations, including Belgium, for legislation negatively affecting Muslims, focusing on the “burqa ban.”
On August 6, the legal advisor for some of the plaintiffs in a case challenging the “burqa ban” that had been brought before the Constitutional Court, submitted an appeal to the European Court for Human Rights following the Constitutional Court’s ruling in December 2012 that the ban did not violate religious freedom. A verdict from the European Court was still outstanding at year’s end.
Muslim women working in the public sector continued to face restrictions on the wearing of headscarves in positions requiring interaction with the public. In May the city council of Ghent voted to overturn a 2007 ban on civil servants wearing headscarves. In March Brussels Secretary of State for Mobility, Civil Service, Equal Opportunities and Administrative Simplification Bruno De Lille stated his support for the right of women to wear headscarves in public service jobs.
On January 2, the labor court ruled on the case of an employee whose employer initially allowed her to wear a headscarf but subsequently asked her to remove it following customer complaints. The employee refused, and her contract was terminated. The court ruled that the employer, who had no policy in place regarding religious neutrality in the workplace, had no reason to terminate the employee. The employee received the equivalent of six months of salary as compensation.
On February 1, the council of the Flemish Community Education Network extended the ban on headscarves that had been approved in 2009. 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.
There were several cases of Muslim local government employees being dismissed or disciplined for actions they deemed to be in conformity with their religion but which governmental authorities regarded as violations of the practice of maintaining a secular or neutral public sector workspace. In April the Brussels city council dismissed a Muslim city worker for refusing to shake hands with his female boss, the alderman for human resources. She stated that “within the city’s administrative services, we have the obligation to be neutral and employees must also show civility.” According to media reports, the employee previously refused to touch a tray with alcoholic beverages and reportedly tried to convert colleagues to Islam.
Recognized religious groups received approximately 645 million euros ($888 million) in official subsidies in 2012. A 2011 study of total public support at all levels of government (including tax exemptions or payment of wages and pensions) to religious groups noted that approximately 86 percent went to the Catholic Church and 2 percent to Muslim groups, although the population was approximately 50 percent Catholic and 6 percent Muslim. Non-Catholics and public financing experts continued to urge the government to disburse public funds in a manner more accurately reflecting the population distribution of religious groups, but the government continued to give a greater proportion of funds to the Catholic Church and a smaller proportion to Muslim and other religious groups than their corresponding percentages of the population.
The Muslim Executive continued to function as the official interlocutor between public authorities and the Muslim community. The government’s withdrawal of funding from the group in 2011 had rendered it temporarily incapable of action, had conferred essential tasks onto the president and vice president, and had deprived Muslims of a practical mechanism for recognizing additional imams and mosques or providing state-supported training of imams. Since then, however, the Muslim Executive underwent a process of internal reform, with the support of the Ministry of Justice, making it more likely that the government would provide a full level of support. In July the formation of a new General Assembly for the executive was approved by the ministry, and observers stated the full reinstatement of the executive as the government’s interlocutor was more likely.
On March 6, a man was sentenced to four months in prison for tearing up a Quran in June 2012 during a demonstration organized by the extremist Vlaams Belang party against a new mosque in Ostend.
In March the Hindu community filed a request for recognition with the Ministry of Justice.
The government provided subsidies to Buddhists to help facilitate the institutional capacity building needed for formal recognition as a “non-confessional philosophical community.”
On August 27, the European Court of Human Rights rejected a complaint from the Church of Scientology that a press report stating that the federal prosecutor planned to sue the church’s Belgian subsidiary had tarnished the presumption of innocence. The European Court stated that there was no proof that derogatory information about the Church of Scientology reported in the press had come from the prosecution.
The government took steps to improve Holocaust education and to counter anti-Semitism. On January 24, the Senate adopted a resolution recognizing the responsibility of the Belgian authorities in the deportation and the persecution of Jews in Belgium during World War II. The Senate resolution also called on educational authorities to expand Holocaust education in schools, with the aim of ensuring that future generations never forget the lessons of the period.
Initial attempts by the Flemish Ministry of Education to create grade school teaching materials to counter anti-Semitism included a cartoon equating the Holocaust with Israeli treatment of Palestinians. Subsequent publicity resulted in the government removing some of the anti-Semitic material from its website.
Some religious groups expressed concern that an amendment to the criminal code providing special protection for “vulnerable persons” against physical or psychological abuse could be used against religious groups deemed to be aggressively proselytizing or against groups considered to be “sects.”
There were no such cases reported.