U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 1999 - Belgium

Section I. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government respects this right in practice.

The law accords "recognized" status to Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Anglicanism, Islam, and Greek and Russian Orthodoxy, and these religions receive subsidies from general government revenues. Taxpayers who object to contributing to religious subsidies have no recourse. By law, each recognized religion has the right to provide teachers at government expense for religious instruction in schools, but not all avail themselves of this right. For recognized religions, the Government pays the salaries, retirement, and lodging costs of ministers and also subsidizes the construction and renovation of church buildings. The ecclesiastical administrations of recognized religions have legal rights and obligations and the municipality where they are located must pay any debts that they incur.

The Government applies the following five criteria in deciding whether to grant recognition: 1) the religion must have a structure or hierarchy; 2) the group must have a sufficient number of members; 3) the religion must have been in existence in Belgium for a long period of time; 4) the religion must offer a social value to the public; and 5) the group must abide by the laws of the State and respect public order. The five criteria are not listed in decrees or laws. The law does not further define "sufficient," "a long period of time," or "social value." However, as early as 1834 the Court of Cassation ruled that no subjective values should be used in determining what constitutes a religion. If a religion is not recognized by the Ministry of Justice, the decision may be appealed to the State Council.

The lack of independent recognized status does not prevent religious groups from practicing freely.

Although Islam was declared a recognized religion in 1974, Muslims have not had an elected body to act as their representative in dealings with the federal Government, and thus received no government support. In December 1998, Muslims held nationwide elections for an assembly consisting of 51 persons representing numerous communities of the Muslim faith. Of those elected, four were women. The Muslim representative body to be recognized by the Government is to be composed of up to 17 members appointed by the elected assembly and the current Muslim executive council. The Government has approved 16 of the 16 candidates put forward jointly by the elected assembly and the current Muslim executive council. It is likely that a 17th individual will be presented in the future, although no specific candidate has been named so far.

The Evangelical Association (a group of evangelical Christian organizations) has claimed discrimination due to the Government's refusal to grant it recognized status separate from the Protestant religion. Despite the Government's refusal, it is negotiating with the group in an effort to ensure that the Evangelical Association enjoys the same benefits as recognized religions. The Government is mediating discussions to enable the Evangelical Association to obtain a seat in the leadership of the recognized Protestant Church.

The population of approximately 10 million is predominantly Roman Catholic. Approximately 75% of the population belongs to the Catholic Church. The Muslim population numbers approximately 350,000, 90 percent of which are Sunni. Protestants number between 90,000 and 100,000. Greek and Russian Orthodox churches have about 100,000 adherents. The Jewish population is approximately 40,000, and the Anglican Church has approximately 21,000 members. In addition to the recognized faiths, the largest nonrecognized religions are Jehovah's Witnesses, with approximately 27,000 baptized members, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), with approximately 3,000 members; and Buddhists, whose population numbers approximately 2,000. Unofficial estimates indicate that approximately 10 percent of the population do not practice any religion.

The most recent statistics available from the Catholic Church indicate that in 1995, 71 percent of children born in the country were baptized in the Catholic Church; 52 percent of all marriages took place in the Catholic Church, and funerals 78 percent of all registered deaths were held in the Catholic Church.

In 1997 a parliamentary commission, established by the Government to recommend a policy to deal with the potential dangers that sects may represent to society – especially children – issued its report. It divided sects into two broadly defined categories: the report characterized a sect as an organized group of individuals espousing the same doctrine within a religion. The Commission considers sects in this sense to be respectable and to reflect the normal exercise of the freedom of religion and assembly guaranteed by fundamental rights. Harmful sectarian organizations, the second category, are defined as groups having or claiming to have a philosophical or religious purpose whose organization or practice involves illegal or injurious activities, harms individuals or society, or impairs human dignity. When the commission published its report, it attached a list of 189 sectarian organizations that were mentioned during testimony presented to the commission. The list did not characterize any of the groups as harmful. Parliament adopted the report's recommendations, but did not adopt the attached list of sects.

To implement one of the report's recommendations, in May 1998 Parliament passed legislation creating a "Center for Information and Advice on Harmful Sectarian Organizations." The Center is to collect open source information on a wide range of religious and philosophical groups and to provide information and advice to the public regarding the legal rights of freedom of association, freedom of privacy, and freedom of religion.

The Government established a budget for the Center, which is scheduled to open in 1999, but has not yet published regulations to govern its operations. In May 1999, Parliament confirmed the list of board members who are to direct the activities of the Center. Members are drawn from academia, government, the judiciary, and the private sector. The Center is authorized to propose policy or legislation on the problem of sects but is not authorized to provide opinions or assessments of individual sectarian organizations. Parliament also passed legislation in October 1998 creating an interagency body that is to work in conjunction with the Center to coordinate government policy on sects. The Minister of Justice is the principal coordinator of the Administrative Coordination Cell, which is expected to begin functioning when the Center for Information starts operating sometime at the end of 1999. Neither the Government nor Parliament has yet taken any action to establish a special police unit on sects or to designate special magistrates to monitor cases involving sects, which were two other recommendations of the 1997 commission.

The law creating the center also stipulates that the harmful nature of a sectarian group is to be evaluated in reference to principles contained in the Constitution, orders, laws, decrees, and in international human rights instruments ratified by the Government.

The parliamentary report also recommended that the country's community governments sponsor information campaigns to educate the public – especially children – regarding the phenomenon of harmful sects. In March 1999, the Francophone Community government launched a prevention campaign called "Gurus, Beware!" The campaign was intended to fulfill the commission's recommendation to educate the country's youth on the dangers posed by harmful sects. Information for the campaign was disseminated through pamphlets, brochures, television, and cinema advertisements. On one page, the brochure discussed 20 of the groups listed in the 1997 commission report and stated that Belgium harbors certain "dangerous sects." In April 1999, one of the groups discussed in the brochure, the Anthroposophic Society (which is based in Antwerp), filed suit to halt its distribution. An Antwerp court issued an order enjoining the Francophone Community government from further distribution of the brochure until all defamatory language referring to this group is removed from the text. The Francophone Community agreed not to publish any additional brochures.

In December 1998, Parliament enacted legislation formally charging Belgian State Security with the duty to monitor harmful sectarian organizations as potential threats to the internal security of the country. This legislation uses the same language as the Parliamentary commission's report and defines "harmful sectarian organizations" as any religious or philosophical group that, through its organization or practices, engages in activities that are illegal, injurious, or harmful to individuals or society.

The Government permits religious instruction in public schools but does not require students 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 have a teacher for each of the six recognized religions. The Catholic Church also maintains a network of private schools at the primary and secondary levels. Catholic schools receive government subsidies for working expenses and teacher salaries.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners.

There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section II. Societal Attitudes

There are amicable relations among the various religious communities. The Catholic Church has taken the lead in establishing an ecumenical dialog between the recognized religions, as well as with the religious groups named in the 1997 parliamentary report on sects. At the national level, there is an annual general assembly of the National Ecumenical Commission to discuss various religious themes. The Catholic Church also 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.

Several of the religious groups cited in the list attached to the parliamentary report on sects have complained of incidents of societal discrimination since the publication of the list. In Nivelles a group of Seventh-Day Adventists claimed discrimination when municipal authorities refused to lease a municipal building to them to use for religious lectures. Some courts in Flanders 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.

Section III. U.S. Government Policy

In October 1998, prior to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Human Dimension Implementation Review meeting in Warsaw, Department of State officials met with Belgian officials in Washington and Brussels to alert the Government of Belgium to U.S. concerns regarding Belgium's fulfillment of its OSCE obligations on religious freedom. Similar meetings were held in Brussels in March 1999, following the Vienna International Helsinki Federation meeting.

At the 1998 OSCE Human Dimension meeting in Warsaw, the U.S. delegation expressed concern over growing intolerance toward minority religious groups in several countries, including Belgium.

U.S. Embassy representatives have discussed the issue of religious freedom throughout the period covered by this report with officials from the Ministries of Justice and Foreign Affairs, as well as with Members of Parliament. An ongoing dialog exists 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. During the period covered by this report, embassy officials also met with representatives of all recognized religions (Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Anglicanism, Islam, and Greek and Russian Orthodoxy) and "sects" such as the Seventh-Day Adventists and the Jehovah's Witnesses.

The U.S. Embassy and the Government worked in international human rights forums to condemn religious rights abuses in third countries.

The Annual Report to Congress on International Religious Freedom describes the status of religious freedom in each foreign country, and government policies violating religious belief and practices of groups, religious denominations and individuals, and U.S. policies to promote religious freedom around the world. It is submitted in compliance with P.L. 105-292 (105th Congress) and is cited as the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.