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Religious Freedom Report 2000

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The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice; however, the Government took action against groups that it considers "harmful sects."

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

There are generally amicable relations among the various religious communities; however, several religious groups complain of discrimination, in particular groups considered by the Government to be sects. In September 1999, police raided offices and homes of members of the Church of Scientology.

The U.S. Embassy maintains constant contact with the Government in an effort to address problems of religious freedom.

Section I. Government Policies on Freedom of Religion

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally 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.

The Government also supports the freedom to participate in nonconfessional philosophical organizations (laics). Laics serve as a seventh recognized "religious" group, and their organizing body, the Central Council of Non-Religious Philosophical Communities of Belgium, receives funds and benefits similar to the six recognized religions. According to the Government, the nonconfessional philosophical organizations have 350,000 members. However, the laics claim 1.5 million members, or 15 percent of the population.

In 1999 the Evangelical Association (a group of evangelical Christian organizations) claimed discrimination due to the Government's refusal to grant it recognized status separate from the recognized Protestant group. 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 Ministry of Justice is assisting in discussions intended to enable the Evangelical Association to be involved in the leadership of the recognized Protestant group.

Religious Demography

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 does 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 for 78 percent of all registered deaths were held in the Catholic Church.

Governmental Restrictions on Religious Freedom

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 provided for 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." Although the Center is not yet fully operational, it has begun 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 was scheduled to open in 1999, but has not yet published regulations to govern its operations. The Center is expected to become fully operational in summer 2000. In April 2000, regulations to govern the Center's operations were submitted to Parliament for approval. 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, and on May 3, 2000, the Minister of Justice signed a decree to establish the interagency body. The names of the members of this body are to become public in June 2000. The Minister of Justice is the principal coordinator of the Administrative Coordination Cell, which is expected to begin functioning when the Center for Information becomes fully operational in the summer of 2000. Neither the Government nor Parliament has yet taken any action to establish a special police unit on sects, but the Government has designated one national magistrate in the District Court of First Instance to monitor cases involving sects. Both measures were recommendations of the 1997 parliamentary report.

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 (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. Other sectarian organizations placed on the 1997 parliamentary list continue to complain that the list is discriminatory.

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.

Several religious groups complain of incidents of religious discrimination. For example, leaders of the Muslim Executive Council report that women and girls wearing traditional dress or headscarves in some cases face discrimination in employment and school admissions.

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. However, other courts have not imposed this restriction.

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. Children and their parents may choose the religious course in which they wish to be enrolled. A seventh choice, a nonconfessional course, is available if the child does not wish a religious course.

Governmental Abuses of Religious Freedom

On September 30, 1999, a 110-officer police force raided offices and homes of members of the Church of Scientology. No arrests or convictions resulted from this raid. The Government is unwilling to provide further statements, as the matter is still under investigation. Church members stated that the Government's seizure and retention of church computers, materials, and files impede the ability of the Church to practice freely. The Church also filed a complaint that the Prosecutor's Office provided a statement to the press in violation of secrecy laws; the complaint is pending and no action was taken by mid-2000.

The Church of Scientology expressed frustration with a lack of access and communication with the Government, both before and after the September 1999 raids of church property and followers' homes.

In April 2000, the Belgian Consulate in Los Angeles refused missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) visas to enter Belgium for missionary work. Similar visas had been processed for decades without problems. In May 2000, the Ministry of Interior instituted temporary procedures to ensure the issuance of visas to Mormon missionaries and undertook to establish permanent procedures by October 2000.

There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners.

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

Forced Religious Conversion of Minor U.S. Citizens

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. At the national level, there is an annual general assembly of the National Ecumenical Commission to discuss various religious themes. The Catholic Church 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.

Section III. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy maintains constant contact with the Government in an effort to address problems of religious freedom.

At the October 1999 Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) meeting, Belgium was criticized by the U.S. delegate for religious discrimination/intolerance and failure to meet OSCE commitments on protecting religious freedom. The U.S. delegate asked what steps Belgium would take to ensure that the Government's "anti-sect" organizations do not become vehicles for promoting prejudice and stereotypes. In response, the Government stated that it had an open dialog with sects, and that this dialog takes place both in public and behind closed doors.

U.S. Embassy representatives discussed the issue of religious freedom throughout the period covered by this report with officials from the Ministries of Justice, Foreign Affairs, and Interior, as well as with Members of Parliament. There is an ongoing dialog 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), as well as with groups such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Jehovah's Witnesses, and the Church of Scientology.

The U.S. Embassy and the Government worked in international human rights forums to criticize religious rights abuses in other countries. Embassy officials met with high-level government officials and actively assisted in resolving outstanding complaints of religious discrimination.

In response to a U.S. request, the Government has addressed the problem of visas for Mormon missionaries (see Section I.)

Source: U.S. State Department

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