The constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the law prohibits discrimination based on religious orientation. Federal law bans covering one’s face in public. On March 7, the Court of Assizes in Brussels (the highest criminal court) convicted French citizen Mehdi Nemmouche of murder in the killings of four persons at the Belgian Jewish Museum in 2014 and sentenced him to life in prison. Longstanding applications for government recognition by Buddhists and Hindus remained pending. As previously announced, the federal government’s termination of Saudi Arabia’s lease on the Great Mosque in Brussels became effective on March 31; the mosque remained open under management of the local Muslim community, pending a more permanent restructuring. The Flemish minister of interior withdrew the recognition of one mosque, reducing the number of recognized mosques nationally to 83. Pending responses to questions it posed to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), the Constitutional Court postponed a ruling on challenges by Jewish and Muslim groups to laws in Wallonia and Flanders that came into effect during the year and that banned the slaughter of animals without prior stunning. In June the Liege prosecutor dropped discrimination charges against a man who in 2014 posted a sign outside his cafe saying dogs were welcome but Jews were not. In November the West Flanders public prosecutor’s office declined to prosecute four supporters of the soccer team Club Brugge for participating in anti-Semitic chants during a match in August 2018.
There were incidents of religiously motivated violence, threats, harassment, discrimination, and hate speech against Jews and Muslims. The government’s Center for Equal Opportunities, Unia, preliminarily reported for 2018, the most recent year for which data were available, 101 anti-Semitic incidents (109 in 2017), and 307 incidents (319 in 2017) against other religious groups, 90 percent of which targeted Muslims. Unia also reported a large increase in online hate speech during the first six months of the year, with 740 reported instances, compared with 369 in 2018 for the same period. In September a European Commission study found that 65 percent of respondents believed discrimination on the basis of religion or belief was widespread in the country. In January the European Commission published a Special Eurobarometer survey indicating 50 percent of residents believed anti-Semitism was a problem. Media reported that in March a driver attempted to run over two veiled Muslim sisters while they were picking up their children from school. According to Unia, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and media, incidents of religious discrimination toward Muslims in both the workplace and educational institutions typically involved actions directed against women wearing headscarves and a failure to make accommodations for prayer, religious holidays, or dietary requirements. Jewish groups reported anti-Semitic statements and attitudes in media and in schools during the year, including ones related to the Holocaust. Media reported in March during the Aalst Carnival, a group displayed a float depicting negative Jewish stereotypes. During the campaign leading up to general elections in May, unknown individuals photoshopped or tagged on social media anti-Semitic statements or caricatures on the campaign material or photographs from several candidates, including Prime Minister Charles Michel.
U.S. embassy officials continued to meet regularly with senior government officials in the Office of the Prime Minister and at the Ministries of Interior, Foreign Affairs, and Justice to discuss anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents and discrimination. Embassy officials also discussed with government officials the continued efforts of Buddhist and Hindu groups to obtain recognition and the status of the government’s plans to encourage more mosques to apply for official recognition as places of worship. The Department of State Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism met with the Jewish and Muslim communities to discuss their concerns. The Ambassador and other embassy officials met with NGOs and religious leaders in Brussels and other communities to address anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents and sentiment, and to promote religious tolerance.
The constitution recognizes Roman Catholicism as the state religion; the law requires the state to contribute to the Catholic Church’s maintenance. The constitution prohibits the state from impeding the free exercise of religions that do not impugn “universal morality or proper behavior” and provides for redress in cases of alleged violations of religious freedom. In May a legislator presented a bill that would reform the constitution to make the country a secular state. According to media reports, the bill engendered significant public debate between a growing constituency calling for official secularism in the constitution and members of the Catholic community opposing the change. The bill was pending in the National Assembly at year’s end. Some civil society leaders continued to state that the constitution did not sufficiently address the specific concerns of non-Catholic religious groups, in particular regarding organizational registration processes. The Constitutional Chamber received 10 claims of denial of the free exercise of religious freedom at government institutions and discrimination by government entities. The chamber dismissed eight of the claims, stating there was insufficient evidence or no basis for claiming discrimination. In the other two cases, the chamber ruled in favor of the claimants: a student who wanted to reschedule her exams to observe the Jewish Sabbath and a non-Catholic teacher who did not want to participate in a Catholic Mass.
Instances of anti-Catholic language on social media continued, reportedly spurred by high-level investigations into priests charged with sexual abuse. There were also reports of anti-Semitism on social media, with Juan Diego Castro, a former presidential candidate and former minister of security, making anti-Semitic comments about an owner of a major media outlet. An interreligious forum created in 2017, with participants from Catholic, evangelical Christian, Lutheran, Jewish, Buddhist, Baha’i, Muslim, and indigenous communities, continued to promote dialogue among the country’s faith communities. The group met periodically throughout the year and hosted a variety of events, including a visit from Sagi Shalev, an interfaith dialogue activist from Israel, and the signing of a declaration to promote fraternity among Latin American and Caribbean cultural and religious traditions.
U.S. embassy representatives engaged with public officials to discuss religious freedom and tolerance. They also engaged religious leaders throughout the year, including those representing religious minorities, to discuss their views on religious freedom. The embassy conducted outreach with leaders of the Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant communities; The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ); and other religious groups. The embassy drew on the July Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom hosted by the Department of State to share messages of tolerance and understanding with religious leaders and government officials. The embassy used social media to send congratulatory messages to religious groups on special religious occasions.
The constitution provides the right to manifest religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, or teaching, either individually or in community with others, and either in public or in private. The law prohibits discrimination based on religious belief. At year’s end, there was one legal action in progress against religious instruction in schools. In March an armed man attacked two Christchurch mosques, killing 51 persons and injuring 49 others, all Muslims. The prime minister labeled the shooter a terrorist and immediately condemned the attacks, advocating religious tolerance and calling for solidarity with the country’s Muslim community. Immediately after the attacks, the government took a series of measures, including the establishment of a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the attacks and organization of public events to memorialize the victims. Following this attack on the Muslim community, in October the government announced 17 million New Zealand dollars ($11.5 million) in extra funding to combat terrorist and violent extremist content online, including content related to religion. In March parliament repealed a little-used but longstanding blasphemy law. In May the Ministry of Education released guidelines on religious instruction in public schools to help clarify the legal obligation of the schools’ boards of trustees when allowing religious instruction.
In the days following the mosque attacks, people from around the country condemned the violence and called for solidarity with the Muslim community. The government-funded Human Rights Commission (HRC) received 87 inquiries or complaints of discrimination based on religious belief for 2018-19, compared with 65 in the previous period. The New Zealand Jewish Council said that anti-Semitism was increasing, particularly online.
The Ambassador, as well as U.S. embassy and consulate general officers, continued to meet with government officials and representatives of various religious groups throughout the country to discuss religious freedom and the role of religion in society. In the aftermath of the Christchurch mosque attacks, the Ambassador led the embassy’s engagement in a robust public outreach program, delivering messages of condolence and solidarity with the people of the country and condemnation of attacks on our “Muslim brothers and sisters.”