Flemish law on religion: dangerous for religious freedom
In the Federal State of Belgium, which comprises of three Regions, a draft decree about the recognition, financing and material management of local faith communities in Flanders has just been approved by the Flemish Government and will be examined by the Flemish Parliament.
In the course of the legislative process, the opinions of several institutions and stakeholders were collected: the Council of State, the Association of Flemish Cities and Communes, the Association of Flemish Provinces, the Flemish Control Commission, and the members of the Flemish Interreligious Dialogue.
The decree is meant to regulate the recognition and control by the Flemish Region of local religious communities which are affiliated to one of the six religions recognized by the Belgian State in the 19th and 20th centuries: Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Anglicanism, Islam, and Orthodoxy. Laïcité, a non-religious philosophical worldview, was officially recognized in the 21st century.
Noteworthy, there would not be any reason to table such a decree, obviously inspired by exacerbated distrust and suspicion towards Islam. Indeed, the implementation of the double recognition mechanism leading to the public financing of local faith communities in Belgium had not recently posed any major security problem. However, in the general climate of increased fear towards Islamic radicalism, political authorities in more and more European democracies have decided to pass laws supposed to prevent this violent development among some Muslims.
Belgium is no exception to this phenomenon but as policies targeting one specific religion would infringe upon the international standards on freedom of religion or belief, new pieces of legislation pertaining to all religions and restricting their freedoms are now being adopted. This is a serious “collateral damage,” and a threat to religious freedom in the country.
Jelle Creemers, associate professor at the Evangelische Theologische Faculteit, Leuven (Belgium), scrutinized the controversial draft decree which will negatively impact the rights and freedoms of Protestant and Evangelical churches in Flanders as well as other state-recognized religions. On 3 June 2021, he published an article on this issue titled “The Flemish draft law on religious communities: A critical analysis” in Bitter Winter which he had presented at the FORB Roundtable Brussels-EU a day before.
The Flemish draft decree is intrinsically linked to the public financing system of state-recognized religions which was introduced in the constitution after the Kingdom of Belgium, first ruled by a German Protestant King, was created in 1830.
In fact, the principle of state financing of religions pre-dated the existence of Belgium as a political and territorial entity.
When in 1792 the French troops entered the Southern Provinces of the Netherlands (approx. present-day Belgium), which were then under Austrian rule, they started to impose the French rule and its religious legislation inherited from the 1789 revolution: in particular, the deprivation of the fundamental freedoms, privileges, and property rights of the Catholic Church.
However, in 1801, Napoleon unilaterally imposed a humiliating concordat on Pope Pius VII, partly restored the rights of the Church but firmly put it under its rule. On 8 April 1802, a law administering public worship of Catholicism and Protestantism was promulgated. It included provisions regarding the state financing of their clergy. Under Napoleon, the Jews were emancipated and in 1807, he designated Judaism as one of the official religions of France, along with Roman Catholicism and Protestantism in its diversity.
After the Battle of Waterloo and the defeat of Napoleon, the “Belgian lands” fell under the Dutch rule and a Protestant prince for 15 years (1815–1830). The legislation providing for the financing of religions put in place by Napoleon remained unchanged.
In 1831, the Belgian constitution based on the Napoleonic Code confirmed the State’s payment of the salaries and retirement pensions of the state-recognized religions (then Art. 117) but the concordat with the Catholic Church was abolished.
In 1836, the new legislation on municipalities and provinces provided that they had to provide housing to the clergy and to pay down the financial deficit of the legal entities (called fabriques d’églises in the Belgian administrative language) managing the budgets of the local faith communities of the state-recognized religions.
In the second half of the 19th century, the financing of religions and the lack of control of the expenses were a bone of contention between the Liberal Party and the Catholic Party. This led to the promulgation of the 4 March 1870 Law regulating the control by public powers of the financial management of the fabriques d’églises of the then state recognized religions: Catholicism, Protestantism, Anglicanism and Judaism.
At the end of the 20th century (1994), Belgium became a Federal State with three regions (Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels Capital). This triggered a mechanism of slow but steady devolution of powers.
The Federal State retained the competence to recognize religions and to pay the salaries and retirement pensions of their clergy.
The three Regions, which have their own parliament and government, were in charge of the recognition—or not—of local faith communities to be financed.
The 10 Provinces remained in charge of the financial assistance to the fabriques d’églises of the Catholic Cathedrals but also of other religions and worldviews which had been state-recognized in the meantime: Islam (1974), Orthodoxy (1985) represented by the Patriarchate of Constantinople and later on, last but not least, the non-religious philosophical entity known as Organized Laïcité (2002).
The Municipalities remained in charge of the local fabriques d’églises of the Catholic, Protestant-Evangelical, Anglican, and Israelite (Jewish) communities.
All state-recognized religions and Laïcité, but not Islam, managed to set up a representative platform that was easily accepted by the state as an official interlocutor. Islam has indeed no clergy or hierarchy and its communities in Belgium are closely linked to immigration as well as to the countries of origin (Morocco, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and so on).
Despite internal elections in 1998 and 2005 (under pressure of the State), the representative platform named Executive of the Muslims of Belgium (EMB) was torn up by financial scandals and internal strife (mainly between Moroccan and Turkish representatives) in which it lost its legitimacy. As a result, it is only after over 30 years (2007) that a few local Muslim communities were entitled to receive some public funding.
In 2014, the election process was replaced by a mechanism providing for the representation of Muslim communities linked to their own mosques. The EMB priorities were then the recognition of new local communities (mosques), the training of teachers of the Islamic religion in public schools and imams to be recognized and financed by the State. The free access to radio and TV programs, already granted to other religions and worldviews, was also on their agenda.
During those decades of hectic relations between the Belgian State and its Muslim communities, the global geo-political environment was deeply transformed by a number of dramatic events and developments: the 9/11 attack in the US, wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan, international terrorism, jihadism, the emergence of a political Islam, and the radicalization of some Muslims. On 22 March 2016, Belgium was dramatically hit by three coordinated suicide bombings perpetrated by young Belgian Muslims in which 33 people lost their lives and over 300 were injured. Belgian jihadists went to Syria and other battlefields; radicalized Muslims (male and female) were arrested, and some radical imams could be deported.
This is the tumultuous context which caused a lot of suspicion and concerns from the Belgian authorities at the level of the parliaments and governments of the Federal State and its Regions.
This explains the security measures that the State and the Flemish Region intend to take but this does not justify the mistrust of the public powers towards all religions, the disproportionate control of their activities, and the planned restrictions to their religious freedom under the pretext of combating terrorism based on ultra-fundamentalist Islam, which is not shared by an overwhelming majority of Muslims in Belgium.
In an article published in Bitter Winter on 4 June, Massimo Introvigne, former “Representative on combating racism, xenophobia and discrimination, with a special focus on discrimination against Christians and members of other religions” of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE),declared that the first political reaction against “Islamic fundamentalism” is to pass a new law but he downplays the effectiveness of such initiatives. At the end of his analysis, he concluded that
“This is rarely effective, because the ultra-fundamentalist organizations responsible for terrorism such as al-Qa’ida and the Islamic State operate underground. A law banning ‘extremist’ organizations would not affect them. They are already banned everywhere as criminal groups.
There is no evidence that banning other conservative Islamic groups would help combating terrorism.”
The Flemish Parliament would be wise to adopt a more appropriate legislation about the recognition, financing and material management of all local faith communities, which would not complicate and restrict their exercise of religious freedom. It will be up to the Flemish Parliament to take this responsibility and to be receptive to amendments going in this direction.
*An introductory paper at the Special Meeting of the FoRB Roundtable Brussels-EU “The New Flemish Legislation on Religion: A Cause of Concern,” June 2, 2021. Third in a series of three. Read the first and the second article.