The crisis between the Catholic Church and the government is escalating in Belgium. So far over 30 Belgian churches have been occupied by illegal immigrants or so-called “sans papiers” (“people without papers” [=staying permits]). The latest church taken over by squatters is the Saint Susanna Church in the Brussels borough of Schaarbeek, where a group of thirty women with small children have installed themselves. They were invited in by the local parish priest.
“We only go to churches where we are welcome,” says Ali Guissé, the spokesman of the far-left Union for the Defense of People Without Papers (UDEP), which coordinates the “church asylum” actions. The relations between the Belgian Church and the government of Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt have soured since last week, when the Belgian Catholic Bishops spoke out in favour of the occupation of their churches and chapels by sans-papiers. The latter have installed themselves there in order to pressure the Belgian authorities into giving them permanent residence permits.
Yesterday Prime Minister Verhofstadt and Cardinal Godfried Danneels, the Archbishop of Mechelen and Brussels, discussed ways to solve the crisis, but, following their meeting in Mechelen today, the Belgian Bishops reaffirmed their support for the church occupations by the sans-papiers. In an official statement the Bishops write that they accept and understand the occupations of churches by people without papers.
Left-wing Belgian priests have been opening up Belgian churches for illegal immigrants for a number of years. While the controversial actions are opposed by many conservative Catholics and ordinary people, the Bishops officially support them. Father Jacques ’t Serstevens, the dean of the parishes of the Brussels boroughs Elsene and Etterbeek, however, said that he is opposed to the church occupations:
Why don’t these asylum seekers occupy town halls and other public buildings? It is the government that decides about their permits, isn’t it? […] A parish cannot function without its church. We need the church for religious services. […] An average church does not have enough toilets and washbasins. Churches are not built for living in.
Churches have been occupied in every Belgian diocese, except the diocese of Hasselt. Some churches currently have 700 people living in them. Many of the sans-papiers are Muslims. They pray in the aisles while the walls display banners with the name of Allah.
UDEP spokesman Ali Guissé, an African immigrant, says the church occupations were boosted by Patrick Dewael, the Belgian Interior Minister. Guissé was an illegal immigrant himself until very recently. He led the group of 118 sans-papiers that occupied the Saint Boniface Church in Elsene last October. Last month Minister Dewael offered 60 of them, including Guissé, permanent residence permits “for humanitarian reasons” because they had gone on hungerstrike. According to Guissé many sans-papiers now think that the way to get their situation “regularised” is by occupying a church and threatening to go on hungerstrike. “Indirectly the minister encourages the occupation of churches and the hungerstrikes,” Ali Guissé told Het Laatste Nieuws, Belgium’s largest paper, today. He said:
I am living proof [of the fact that our actions can be succesful]. Last October I started with the occupation of the Saint Boniface Church in Elsene, where the first sans-papiers went on hungerstrike. Minister Dewael regularised the situation of 60 occupants of the church last April, including mine. The thousands of sans-papiers, who have since followed our example, are very well aware of this.
Ali Bouchrouk, an Algerian who has a residency permit but whose wife does not, told the American weekly National Catholic Reporter that the strategy of the sans-papiers is simple:
We are in a Catholic country, thus we occupy churches. If we were in Algeria, we would occupy mosques.
Meanwhile Monsignor Karl-Jozef Rauber, the Papal Nuncio [or Vatican Ambassador] to Belgium, explained his position in the Brussels newspaper De Standaard. Yesterday the Nuncio was criticised after newspapers reported that he fully supports the church occupations. De Standaard, however, writes that the Nuncio’s secretariat denies that he supports the actions. His secretariat is quoted as saying: “The Nuncio cannot interfere in this issue. However, whatever the Belgian bishops say, the Nuncio supports them because the bishops are wise men.”
Minister Dewael, a member of Prime Minister Verhofstadt’s Liberal Party VLD, has said that the Church has to stop interfering in Belgian politics. In 2000 the Verhofstadt government, which is a coalition of Liberals and Socialists, decided to “regularise” every illegal immigrant who could prove that he or she had lived in the country for five years. The 2000 regularisation allowed 50,000 illegal immigrants to become permanent residents of Belgium (that has 10 million inhabitants). The UDEP, the Catholic Bishops and the Socialist Party are in favour of another “regularisation” round, but the VLD says the Belgian welfare system cannot afford this.
Although the Belgian Bishops support the church occupations and the Nuncio, the Vatican representative in Brussels, refuses to criticise them, the official position of the Roman Catholic Church is clear. The 2004 document Erga migrantes caritas Christi states in paragraph 61:
61. To avoid misunderstandings and confusion, and considering the religious diversity that we mutually recognise, and out of respect for sacred places and the religion of the other too, we do not consider it opportune for Christian churches, chapels, places of worship or other places reserved for evangelisation and pastoral work to be made available for members of non-Christian religions. Still less should they be used to obtain recognition of demands made on the public authorities.
Vatican Representative Supports Church Squatters, 10 May 2006
Allah Takes Over Catholic Church, 7 May 2006
Belgian Church Organizes Illegal Immigrants, 5 May 2006