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BELGIUM: Flemish government ‘cleaning up’ Islamic communities

Flemish government ‘cleaning up’ Islamic communities

Other state-recognized and state-financed religious communities in Flanders concerned about their future with the new Flemish decree

By Willy Fautré, Human Rights Without Frontiers

 

HRWF (14.06.2021) – After the deportation of a Turkish imam a few months ago, Minister of Domestic Affairs, Equal Opportunities and Integration of the Flemish government, Bart Somers (Open VLD), decided to put to an end the recognition and financing of a Pakistani mosque last week.

 

Pakistani mosque in Antwerp

 

On 8 June, Minister Somers decided last week to cancel the recognition of the Pakistani mosque in Antwerp named ‘Antwerp Islamic Association’. It had been recognized since 2007, which had made it eligible for financing by the Flemish government and the Belgian state.

 

Since 2016, the Islamic community has been embroiled in an internal conflict about the appointment of an imam.

 

The former imam recognized by the public powers had been dismissed by the Antwerp Islamic Association and replaced by a another one who is not approved by the Flemish government but who is approved by the Executive of the Muslims of Belgium (EMB), the official interlocutor of the Belgian State.

 

Minister Somers considered that the Pakistani Muslim community does not fulfill the recognition criterion of ‘social relevance’ any more which includes enduring relations with the local government and the local community (neighborhood) as well as social cohesion. The local police sometimes had to intervene in brawls opposing the followers of the two imams.

 

Deportation of a Turkish imam near Genk (Limburg)

 

On the 8 June meeting of the Commission on Domestic Affairs, Equal Opportunities and Integration of the Flemish Parliament, Minister Bart Somers announced that after consulting the Federal Ministry of Justice and other relevant Belgian institutions, he had ordered a Turkish imam on 4 February 2021 to leave the Belgian territory. He confirmed that the imam appointed by the Diyanet in Turkey had gone back to his country on 5 April.

 

Noteworthy is that the Turkish directorate cannot appoint imams to work in recognized Muslim communities in Belgium without a working permit and the approval of the federal and regional authorities as the salaries and retirement pensions of clerics are paid by the State. Belgium also has its share of responsibility in this incident.

The imam was working for the mosque of Houthalen-Helchteren known as the Green Mosque. He was deported after claiming on the Facebook page of the mosque that “homosexuality is a disease, causes decay and is banned by Islam”. The imam also referred to an homophobic Friday sermon of Turkey’s President of Religious Affairs Ali Erbaş who  publicly declared that: “Islam curses homosexuality”.

Sammy Mahdi, Belgium’s Federal Government’s Minister in charge of Asylum and Migration, refused to extend the residence permit of the controversial imam who had been living in Belgium for three years.

“Those who come here to sow the seeds of hatred in our society do not have a place here,” the Minister had commented.

Appointed by Turkey’s Presidency of Religious Affairs to work in Belgium, the imam made an application to Belgium’s Immigration Authority in October 2020 and requested the extension of his residence and work permits.

Mahdi also said, “We cannot tolerate this stigmatization of the homosexual community and spreading of such messages. If you have the right to work as an imam in Belgium, you have an exemplary duty. Everyone who does not want to hold our values will have to bear the consequences.”

The board of directors of the mosque quickly removed the controversial imam and replaced him by another one when the issue became public.

Considering the swift reaction of the mosque, Minister Somers did not hold the mosque responsible for the incident and decided not to deprive it from its registration and its public financing but he said it is being put under increased surveillance.

Some HRWF comments

 

In both incidents, the Flemish Decree was used by the Flemish Government to possibly cancel the recognition and financing of the said faith-based communities. The names of the controversial imams were not revealed anywhere and further research about the background of these actors is almost impossible.

 

Homophobia cannot be accepted in a democratic country and must be prosecuted. Consequently, it makes senses that public powers should not finance a faith-based community and/or its leader making homophobic statements.

The incident in the Turkish mosque shows that homophobic statements can be a reason to trigger the mechanism of removal of recognition and financing of a faith-based community by the Flemish Government on the basis of the current or future Flemish Decree. It means the (alleged) violation of one single provision of it can be used for this purpose in the upcoming new decree which contains 72 articles and will soon be proposed to the vote of the Flemish Parliament.

 

The residence permit of the Turkish Dyianet imam was not prolonged on the basis of the accusation of homophobia but he was never taken to and sentenced by a court in Belgium on this ground.

 

The text of the controversial statement of the Turkish imam is not quoted anywhere and his name was not revealed.

 

Because of the risk to lose its recognition, the mosque decided to quickly fire its imam. In the future this might lead to theological self-censorship of religious communities about teaching their century-old beliefs in their own premises while the Belgian constitution provides for the mutual autonomy of state and religions.

 

These remarks show that the relations between state and religions are now determined by new paradigms in an increasingly secularized Belgium.

 

Clerics of other faith-based communities, recognized and financed by the state, have shared their concerns with HRWF about what they perceive as judicial insecurity.

 

Concerns of other state-recognized religions

 

On the side of other recognized religions, there are serious concerns about the intrusion of state institutions in their beliefs, their teachings inside their premises and their freedom of expression in the public space. What they consider a sin might be prosecuted as hate speech or discrimination.

 

There is also some perplexity about the increased mistrust towards them as well and the creation of a control agency with a budget of 3 million Euro which will be able to control the implementation of the new decree by 95% of the communities per year.

 

The powers of that new agency are considered disproportionate and the legality of some provisions is questioned by some:

  • Unexpected visits to a place of worship
  • Full access to all its spaces
  • Identity control of all persons present
  • Interrogation of all persons present
  • Access to all documents, incl. copies
  • Police assistance, if so desired.

 

Lack of proportionality is also denounced by some as the failure to fulfill one single requirement of the decree can lead to the annulment of the recognition and/or the suspension or limitation of the subsidies.

 

The Roman Catholic Church is not immune either. Indeed, in a case against Jehovah’s Witnesses in Ghent, the court of first instance ruled in March that their Biblical teaching and practice about social distancing between their members and excommunicated members was equivalent to incitement to hatred and discrimination based on religion. The decision is being appealed.

Similar proceedings could be instituted against the Catholic Church in Belgium, and any other country, as their priests have recently been forbidden by the Pope from blessing same-sex couples and could hereby be accused of discriminating against homosexuals and homophobia.

 

Photo: © Klaas De Scheirder

Further reading about FORB in Belgium on HRWF website





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BELGIUM: Flemish law on religion : dangerous for religious freedom

On 4 June, after receiving the opinion of the Council of State, the Flemish government gave its final approval to the controversial decree.

 

 

By Willy Fautré*

Bitter Winter (08.06.2021) – https://bit.ly/3cnnoU8 – 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.

Photo : A map of Flanders in 1609 (credits).

*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.

Further reading about FORB in Belgium on HRWF website





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BELGIUM: Flemish draft law on religious communities: Critical analysis

The Flemish draft law on religious communities: a critical analysis

The proposed decree feeds into the growing distrust of religion and raises serious religious freedom concerns.

 

by Jelle Creemers*

*An introductory paper at the Special Meeting of the Freedom of Religion or Belief Roundtable Belgium “The New Flemish Legislation on Religion: A Cause for Concern,” June 2, 2021.

Bitter Winter (03.06.2021) – https://bit.ly/34GCcsM – In Flanders, a new Decree concerning the Recognition of Local Faith Communities is close to finalization (public information here). This article shortly introduces the context and the main elements of the proposed legislation, on the way listing some critical remarks and questions. It concludes that the proposed legislation feeds into an already polarized societal debate on religion and contains serious concerns from a FORB (freedom of religion or belief) perspective, not only for the (to be) recognized communities themselves, but also for religious communities which do not have or aim for official recognition.

As the Belgian system of public support for worldviews is quite complex and unequal, three introductory remarks are in place in view of understanding the proper place of the legislation under consideration. (1) The proposed regulations under consideration concern the (second-degree) recognition of a local community. This recognition allows a local religious community (a mosque, a church or a synagogue) to have a religious minister paid by the state and gives her the possibility to ask for financial assistance for some related costs, including the building and renovation of their place of worship. It will replace current Flemish legislation from 2004/2005. (2) The upcoming legislation will only apply to recognized religious communities. While currently seven worldviews are officially recognized in Belgium, it pertains only to local communities of the six recognized ‘religions’ (Anglican, Catholic, Islamic, Israelite, Orthodox and Protestant-Evangelical). The seventh fully recognized worldview is not a religion but a (humanistic/laic) non-confessional philosophy (recognition of Buddhism is upcoming). Their local operations will not fall under the proposed strict regime. (3) While recognition is a possibility for communities of these seven recognized worldviews, there exists a great imbalance in view of such local recognitions. Currently all Roman Catholic parishes have this recognition and are subsidized. In contrast, only a small minority of mosques and Evangelical communities have gained this local recognition in the past fifteen years.

The legislation under consideration aims at three things according to the explanatory memorandum: (a) to adapt the existing regulations for recognition in view of “better separating the wheat from the chaff”, (b) to strengthen control of the recognized religious communities and (c) to be able to sanction recognized religious communities. In what follows, we will discuss (A) the recognition requirements themselves (i.e., esp. Art. 7), and (B) the proposed new agency for the control and sanctioning of recognized communities (i.e., esp. Art. 21-28), called the “Information and Screening Service.” We will end with (C) some conclusions.

A. The Recognition Requirements (see esp. Art. 7)

The proposed decree includes an elaborate list of recognition requirements, which will not all feature here. But the key recognition requirements are summarized under three headings.

A1. Requirements regarding Structures and Finances.

Under the new regulations, a recognized religious community needs to have (a) a certain juridical structure and (b) its recognition must have the explicit approval of the religion’s representative organ. This implies that each religion is hierarchically structured, which does not fit some religions. Further, structures further need to be clear and fully transparent, which includes that information must be given on (c) all juridical structures which are related to a religious community, such as an educational or social welfare organization, and (d) their internal financial streams. To gain recognition and get subsidies, a religious community also needs to (e) demonstrate for four years that it is financially independent (art. 7 par 3 and 12). Thus, a religious community needs to demonstrate it doesn’t need state support to be eligible for it. In addition, art. 7 par 4 states explicitly that (f) the community cannot receive foreign funding which would jeopardize its independence. Hence, it should be able to function with money provided by the religious community members. Note, however, that such giving to the religious community is not without consequence. (g) Of every individual or organization contributing more than 500 euro per year to the community—which is 42 euro on a monthly basis—, personal data must be kept in a logbook, including name, address, nationality and place and date of birth of the giver (art. 18 §2). All related authorities can ask for this logbook at any time and thus get full insight in the giving habits of the community’s members.

A2. Requirements regarding the Recognized Religious Community and Society

For recognized communities, there is (a) the obligation for each foreign religious minister to successfully follow a civic integration course, and (b) the expectation that the Flemish language decrees are followed by the community. Also, (c) the religious community needs to explicitly demonstrate its societal value and a lack can result in loss of recognition. In concreto, so art. 7 par 5 says, for recognition a religious community (1) must have at least 200 members, (2) must maintain enduring relations with the local governments and (3) must maintain enduring relations with the local community (neighborhood). What the latter means exactly and what to do if the neighborhood is not willing to uphold enduring relations with a mosque, church or synagogue, is not clear. What is clear, is that it may be a reason for losing or not getting recognition.

A3. Requirements regarding the Recognized Religious Community and the Law

Concerning the rule of law, the decree explicates in art. 7 par 6 that all responsible persons of a faith community must “undertake that no one can, on the grounds of religious or philosophical motives, evade the applicable rules of law, the European Convention on Human Rights and the Constitution, or restrict the rights and obligations of others.” This seems to be either a contradiction in terms or at best a null statement, as the ECHR explicitly stipulates freedom of religion or belief, which allows for implications on rules, rights and obligations on the grounds of religious or philosophical motives. As such, this requirement endangers religious freedom for recognized religious communities. Second, it also potentially undermines a religious community’s prophetic capital, as it expects a religious community not to critically question reigning values, laws, rights and obligations.

B.The Information and Screening Service

The second element which requires attention is the Information and Screening service, which is erected in service of this decree. This control agency will, so the responsible minister assured the Flemish Parliament, become “one of the most performant inspection services of our Flemish administration.” It aims at a capacity of 19 fulltime equivalents and an annual budget of 3 million euro. This should enable the agency to control 95% of the religious communities every year. And the control officers will have far reaching powers. (a) They can come unexpectedly to a place of worship and (b) then must be given full access to all its spaces. They can (c) do identity controls of all present individuals—leaders, members, and guests. They can (d) immediately interrogate each individual present. They can (e) demand access to all documents in the building and demand copies they may find useful, or take them if they deem that necessary. They can (f) ask police assistance in their task. And if they find any breaches in the recognition requirements, they can sanction the religious community by (a) limiting or suspending their subsidies, (b) suspending their recognition for a certain period or (c) by annulling their recognition.

C. Conclusions

This short article does not allow for a nuanced discussion of each article of the proposed legislation, which also has its strengths in comparison with the existing regulations. But I hope the examples give sufficient ground for four critical conclusions from a FORB perspective:

  1. The polarized language in which the Flemish government has written and worked out this new policy suggests a distrust of religious communities. In the binary of chaff and wheat, there is no space for “good” communities which simply choose to keep a distance from the state. This is certainly in the disadvantage of non-recognized communities, particularly outside of the recognized religions, such as Baháʼís, Sikh, or Jehovah’s Witnesses.
  2. The recognition policy aims at monitoring and sanctioning rather than supporting or assisting religious communities. This is particularly in the disadvantage of the recognized minority religions, which often have a weak hierarchy, are diversified, have limited experience in administrative affairs and limited social and financial capital. Getting and keeping their faith communities recognized is impeded rather than supported.
  3. The proposed legislation does not respect proportionality in its investments, in its control system and in the invasion of privacy. In the absence of a security threat, it aims at annual controls, gives far-reaching authorizations to a controlling agency and collects data on citizens and their personal finances. This disproportionally limits privacy and individual and communal freedoms.
  4. Quite some elements in the legislation are unclear and bring legal uncertainty. Demonstrating societal relevance is difficult, as is demonstrating that foreign financial support is not limiting independence. Moreover, the test period requires a community seeking recognition to live according to the rules for four years without receiving anything in return and without certainty that the recognition will be awarded upon successful completion.

In short, in its current formulation the proposed legislation willingly or unwillingly feeds into a growing distrust of religion. Religious communities are requested to denude themselves and put on a straitjacket to get or keep recognition—and refusing to do that is the more reason for suspicion. As such, the proposed legislation may well strengthen rather than alleviate already polarized views on religion in society and seriously undermine the freedoms and societal positions of both recognized and non-recognized religious communities.

Photo : The Flemish Parliament, Brussels (credits).

 

Jelle Creemers coordinates the Institute for the Study of Freedom of Religion or Belief (ISFORB) at the Evangelische Theologische Faculteit, Leuven (Belgium) and is an Associate Professor and Department Chair of Religious Studies & Missiology in the same Faculty.

Further reading about FORB in Belgium on HRWF website





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BELGIUM: The Ghent case against Jehovah’s Witnesses: A chronology

A paper presented at the Webinar “Jehovah’s Witnesses, Shunning, and Religious Liberty: The Ghent Court Decision,” April 9, 2021

See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sMoMpgLXLiU 

 

by Willy Fautré, Human Rights Without Frontiers

Table of Contents

A timeline

 

 

Bitter Winter International (12.04.2021) – The criminal investigation targeting the Christian Congregation of Jehovah’ Witnesses in Belgium which got into the spotlight earlier this year did in fact start in 2015.

 

A timeline

 

On 19 March 2015, a former Jehovah’ Witness who had freely chosen to recant his faith, filed a criminal complaint against the CCJW.

 

On 5 January 2016, Substitute Public Prosecutor Isabel de Tandt transmitted the criminal file to the Federal Judicial Police. She stated in her cover letter that this is “a file against the Jehovah’s Witnesses regarding defamation and, more specifically, regarding their defamation policy.”

On 29 January 2016, the Federal Judicial Police issued a Pro-Justitia listing the CCJW and its Board of Directors as the subject of the criminal investigation.

On 10 April 2018, after over two years of silence, the Public Prosecutor officially notified the CCJW of an investigation that had been ongoing since January 2016. Three CCJW board members were then invited for a hearing.

On 15 May 2018, the CCJW responded to that invitation by a letter to the Federal Judicial Police of East Flanders in which it requested a number of details about the criminal investigation: the grounds of the accusation and the author thereof. In its letter, the CCJW specifically addressed the issue of disfellowshipping and stressed that courts in Liège, Mons and Brussels had confirmed this practice is protected under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

In that letter, the CCJW indicated its objections to the investigation (due to the little information provided by the police) and asked the Public Prosecutor to dismiss this investigation but indicated “Of course, we are fully prepared to work with you to clarify this issue”. There was no response whatsoever to this offer.

On 13 May 2020, after two more years of silence by the judicial authorities, the CCJW received a copy of the 11 May 2020 summons charging it with crimes under Article 22 of the Anti-Discrimination Act.

The main issue raised by the criminal case is the questionable assimilation of the CCJW’s shunning policy with a form of discrimination and incitement to hatred.

However, Courts in Belgium had already ruled on similar complaints of alleged discrimination.

On 10 January 2012, the Court of Appeal of Mons rejected J.L.’s discrimination claim.

On 5 November 2018, the Court of Appeal of Brussels confirmed the decision of the Court of Appeal of Mons and rejected J.L.’s discrimination claim.

Last but not least, on 7 February 2019, the Court of Cassation rejected J.L.’s appeal against the judgment of the Court of Appeal of Brussels.

 

The trial

 

On 16 February 2021, the trial started against the Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses (CCJW) at the criminal court of Ghent (East Flanders) on the alleged grounds of discrimination and incitement to hatred with a particular focus on their shunning (ostracization) practice in cases of disfellowshipping (excommunication) and disassociation (voluntary resignation).

Four lawyers pleaded for the main plaintiff and over a dozen more former or inactive Jehovah’s Witnesses who had joined him in the proceedings. They took two hours and a half for presenting their arguments and the situation of their clients about their alleged family ostracization. Their plea was supported by the lawyer of UNIA, an inter-federal independent public institution financed by public money that fights discrimination and racism and promotes equal opportunities. Finally, the public prosecutor formally asked that CCJW would be convicted for the alleged crime.

The CCJW was defended by two lawyers, who pleaded for about an hour and a half. They stressed to the judge that the claimants were in fact asking to have the Bible condemned, as it is the basis for the religious beliefs and practices adopted by Jehovah’s Witnesses. This would be the first time since the 16th century that a court in Western Europe would find the Bible criminally guilty, they said.

Half a dozen journalists were present to cover this unusual trial.

Who are the claimants?

 

The main plaintiff had not been excluded from Jehovah’s Witnesses but had left of his own will. His wife and their children were not excluded and did not resign, although they too joined the case as claimants.

Only two former Jehovah’s Witnesses had been excluded, one of them becoming a civil party on the very day of the trial.

Six had freely decided to recant their faith.

Five had neither left nor been excluded. They are still considered Jehovah’s Witnesses, though inactive.

The statements of the claimants

 

In statements relying more on emotions than on facts, the claimants made various allegations concerning alleged inhuman ostracization actions by their family members who are still Jehovah’s Witnesses.

However, in a number of cases, the claimants’ assertions concerning the alleged moral misbehavior of their family members were contradicted by the latter’s written and signed testimonies. This was for example the case of the brother-in-law of the main claimant.

The claimants also relied on statements of three more persons making various allegations about how their friends and family members who are Jehovah’s Witnesses have allegedly treated them unfairly. However, strange though it may be, these persons too were never excluded or resigned of his/her own will, which made their testimonies rather irrelevant.

 

The position of the CCJW

In balance, the CCJW provided the Court with nine statements of individuals who had been excluded and who had since been reinstated as Jehovah’s Witnesses. These testimonies shed quite a different light on the matter. They explain how they had been fairly treated by congregation elders, family, and others in the congregation when they were disfellowshipped.

The cases raised at the Court in Ghent are obviously and exclusively family matters. It would be reductive to restrict the explanation for perturbated family relationships to the official policy of the CCJW. So many different situations may that explain difference of views and values within a family as many of the protagonists have experienced in their own circumstances.

The CCJW considers it is not legally responsible for the intra-familial relations between its members and former members, as it is an individual decision.

All organized religions have exclusion or excommunication procedures in their statutes and Jehovah’s Witnesses are not an exception. Such procedures, rooted in the teachings of the Bible, have been determined by their Governing Body in the United States, the highest theological level of their Church. They are applied in all the countries of the world where they are active, including in Belgium.

In the Belgian case, the decisions of disfellowshipping and of social distancing from excommunicated and disassociated members raised in the court were taken at the level of the local congregations, not by the CCJW.

In their conclusions provided to the Court before the trial, the CCJW says that they do not segregate excluded or resigning members as these can always attend their religious services. They also point out that baptized Jehovah’s Witnesses who no longer actively associate with fellow believers, are not shunned.

Clarifying the relations between Jehovah’s Witnesses and disfellowshipped or disassociated family members, they also say: “In the immediate household, although the ‘religious ties’ the expelled or disassociated person had with his family change, … blood ties remain. The marriage relationship and normal family affections and dealings continue.” In other words, normal family affection and association continues.

The Verdict and its Consequences

The court totally disregarded the arguments of the CCJW and on 16 March 2021 condemned the legal entity to the payment of a fine estimated at 96,000 EUR on the grounds of discrimination and incitement to hatred. The CCJW has appealed the court decision.

What the whole case in Ghent is all about is an attempt to oblige the Witnesses to change their Bible-based religious practices. This is a dangerous verdict as it breaches the autonomy of religions as guaranteed by the Belgian Constitution and the European Court of Human Rights.

If this decision happened not to be overturned, its consequences would be incalculable in Belgium and abroad. It would have repercussions on other religious communities where conversion, apostasy and exclusion are followed by family and social ostracization or worse.

It would open the door to the prosecution of the Catholic Church in Belgium and any other country as their priests are forbidden from blessing same-sex couples and could be accused of discriminating against homosexuals.

 





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BELGIUM: The Ghent Jehovah’s Witness decision: dangerous for all religions

Suggesting that current members do not associate with “apostate” ex-members has been historically common in many religions.

 

By Massimo Introvigne

 

Bitter Winter (19.03.2021) – https://bit.ly/3ltfEU2 – The decision rendered on March 16, 2021 by the Court of Ghent in Belgium, which states that suggesting that current members of a religious organization do not associate with ex-members who have been disfellowshipped or have left the organization amounts to discrimination and incitement to hatred, is not dangerous for the religious liberty of Jehovah’s Witnesses only. It represents a danger for all religions, not only because of the intrusion into the sphere of autonomy of a religious body (discussed in the second article of this series), but also because the practice of “shunning” so-called “apostate” ex-members (a technical term used by sociologists without any negative implication) is hardly unique to the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Several new religious movements have similar policies. I would not insist on them, because of the possible objection that “ostracism” is in fact typical of “cults,” although not many would use the word “cult” for the Amish, whose shunning practices are the subject of several novels and movies.

But “shunning” the “apostates” is also part of mainline religions. In Medieval and early modern Judaism, the community, including the close relatives, regarded the apostate as morally dead. The apostate was mentioned by using the language usually reserved for the deceased persons, a very effective kind of “shunning.” Talmudic Judaism had the notions of niddui, a less severe form of social isolation, and herem, which was more radical. The apostate, as well any other subject to herem had to live in confinement with his family only, no outsider being allowed to come near him, eat and drink with him, greet him. After his death, his coffin would be stoned, if only symbolically by placing a single stone on it. It was a sort of civil death; and indeed, it was said that “a Jew on whom a herem lies can be regarded as dead.” This practice survives to this very day in some ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities.

There is a large literature about apostasy in Islam. Although the relevant texts of the Quran may be subject to different interpretation, and today there are liberals insisting that execution is not mandatory, the opinion that apostates from Islam should be killed is still widespread. Several Islamic states maintain laws considering apostasy from Islam a crime to be punished by the death penalty. Authoritative theologians consider killing an apostate a virtuous deed. Some liberals, and the dissident Ahmadi Muslims (who are themselves regarded as apostates and persecuted by mainline Muslims in Pakistan and elsewhere), try to argue that death penalty for the apostates was never really taught by Islam. As historian David Cook noted, their efforts are politically “laudable” and may even save some lives, but are historically untenable. Cook states that “it is really amazing (…) to note the ease with which they ignore the weight of the entire Muslim legal tradition.” “The accepted punishment for apostasy from early stages of Islam was death.” It is true that the penalty was not applied with the same regularity in different times and regions. However, “This attitude has been strengthened immensely over the centuries to the point where even when modern Arab or Muslim states abolish the death penalty for apostasy, it is usually enforced by the enraged populace” (Cook, “Apostasy from Islam: A Historical Perspective.” Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 31:248–88).

When Constantinian Christianity went from persecuted minority to state religion, it quickly obtained from the Roman Emperors laws mandating the execution of those Christians who would apostatize and return to the pagan rites (Codex Justinianus I,11:1 and 7). Those who would induce Christians to apostatize should also be executed (Codex Justinianus I,7:5). If arrests and executions would be carried out timely, there should be no risk that Christians would put their faith at danger by associating with apostates. However, to be on the safer side, the Codex Justinianus (I,7:3) also mandated that apostates “shall be separated from association with all other persons.”

In more recent centuries, apostates from Christianity managed to escape execution, but still they were harassed in several different ways. Apostates who had been priests were particularly singled out. As late as 1929, in its Concordat with Italy, the Catholic Church obtained from the government that “apostate” ex-priests would be prevented from teachings in all kind of state schools or “be hired or maintain any employment or job placing them in direct contact with the public” (Concordat of February 11, 1929, art. 5). This was Fascist Italy, but the provision remained in the democratic Italian Republic, was successfully defended (if through a technicality) against a challenge before the Constitutional Court in 1962, and was finally abolished only in 1984.

The Orthodox practice was very similar to its Catholic counterpart, which is not surprising, given the common roots in the post-Constantinian legal tradition of Rome and Byzantium. The authoritative Russian Orthodox Encyclopedia (Moscow: Church Research Center “Orthodox Encyclopedia”, vol. 2, pp. 274–79), discussing the practice of anathema, compares it to herem in Judaism, and reminds its readers that anathema is different from excommunication. While the excommunicated person is excluded from certain rituals but is still regarded as a member of the Church and is not shunned, those anathematized are completely cast off from the Church and should be “avoided” by all believers. It is by no means a practice of the past. The Orthodox Encyclopedia mentions the recent cases of dissident priest and human rights activist Gleb Yakunin (1936–2014) and of Patriarch Filaret of Kiev (b. 1929), very much in the news recently as the founder of an autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church separated from the Patriarchate of Moscow, and of those associating with “cults and sects,” including Theosophy and Spiritualism. All these persons should be shunned.

Similar practices exist or existed among several Hindus and Buddhist communities. Clearly, all or most faiths find in their scriptures and theologies reasons suggesting that their members should not associate with apostate ex-members.

Nor is this limited to apostates. I would like to conclude this series with a personal note. I am a Roman Catholic, and one who is divorced and remarried. Although not only the present Pope Francis, but also his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI, told divorced and remarried Catholics that they should feel part of their local Catholic communities, and be treated as such, I have among my friends people of all religious persuasions. Some of them are conservative Catholics and, no matter what the Popes might have said, have decided to cease any association with me after my divorce. Some were friends I knew from my college years. The end of these friendships was certainly painful. Yet, I respected their free decision not to associate with me any longer, and certainly did not ask a court of law to compel them to continue our friendship, nor did I sue the conservative theologians who support this behavior asking for damages or fines. This was not generosity. It was simply common sense, and it should apply to the Jehovah’s Witnesses—and to anybody else.

Massimo Introvigne (born June 14, 1955 in Rome) is an Italian sociologist of religions. He is the founder and managing director of the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR), an international network of scholars who study new religious movements. Introvigne is the author of some 70 books and more than 100 articles in the field of sociology of religion. He was the main author of the Enciclopedia delle religioni in Italia (Encyclopedia of Religions in Italy). He is a member of the editorial board for the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion and of the executive board of University of California Press’ Nova Religio.  From January 5 to December 31, 2011, he has served as the “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). From 2012 to 2015 he served as chairperson of the Observatory of Religious Liberty, instituted by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in order to monitor problems of religious liberty on a worldwide scale.


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