While Western Europe is turning Muslim, its Christian Churches are committing suicide. A Muslim would never allow his mosque to be turned into a dormitory for non-believers. This, however, is exactly what the Belgian Catholic Church is doing. The Belgian Bishops have already opened up 20 churches and chapels to illegal immigrants – so-called “sans-papiers” or “people without papers [=staying permits]” – who by Belgian law have to be expelled.
The illegal immigrants have been told that they are safe in the churches because the authorities will refrain from entering the buildings out of respect for the Catholic Church. It is strange that the Church should insinuate that there is some type of persecution considering that the Belgian authorities never organise searches for illegal immigrants, and hardly ever expel even criminals. The number of people camping in churches so far varies from 100 to 700. More than 160 immigrants in the churches have also gone on hunger strike. The church authorities say they are offering “church asylum” to the “sans-papiers.”
Earlier this week a 31 year old illegal immigrant from Morocco, squatting in a church in Glain in the diocese of Liège, sewed his lips closed to protest the fact that (a) he has no money to travel to Morocco to attend his father’s funeral and (b) that if he does go to Morocco he will not be allowed to enter Belgium again. About 300 Africans – men, women and children – are squatting in Antwerp’s Magdalena Chapel. The place is filled with mattresses. “We ask but a small piece of paper,” Ahmed, one of the illegal immigrants in the chapel says. The occupants have the full support of Monsignor Paul Van den Berghe, the Bishop of Antwerp. Last February the latter participated in a protest demonstration in favour of the “sans-papiers.” He even called upon the Catholic schools of his diocese to have the pupils participate in the demonstration. Though Cardinal Godfried Danneels, the Belgian Primate and the Archbishop of Brussels, did not join the demonstration in person, he exhorted the faithful to participate.
Two weeks ago Monsignor André Léonard, the Bishop of Namur, who thinks that churches and chapels, as they have no sanitation or conveniences, are not suitable for accommodating lodgers, opened his episcopal residence (which is government property) to the “sans-papiers.” In today’s newspapers he says that it is “inhuman to expel people who are well integrated in our country.” Bishop Léonard demands that the law be changed.
In Ghent, the illegal immigrants staying in the Saint Anthony Church have the full support of Monsignor Luc Van Looy, the Bishop of Ghent. “Everybody is entitled to a good place in our society. Also illegal fugitives,” the Bishop said. The occupants of the Saint Curé of Ars Church in the Brussels suburb of Vorst pride themselves on the “multiculturalism” of their group. “There are Africans, Eastern Europeans, Moroccans, South Americans and Asians here,” Ntep Mauc Audrey, their spokesman, told the media. “Some have only been in Belgium for one year. Others have already been sans-papiers for 36 years. The parish priest supports us.” So does Cardinal Danneels. “Solidarity cannot be limited to one's own nation,” the Cardinal said today in an interview in the leftist trade union weekly Visie.
“We are prepared to die,” says Etienne Kabongo, a Congolese who has gone on hungerstrike in Broechem near Antwerp. Kabongo has lived in Belgium for three years. Said Mokhtar, an Algerian, agrees. “If we are not allowed to stay I will fast to the bitter end. My wife and our three children have been in Belgium for six years. Our children speak better Dutch than Arabic.”
However, many Belgians, including many Catholics, do not agree with the “church occupations.” Belgium has one of the most hospitable policies towards immigrants in Europe. Illegal immigrants are hardly ever expelled. Six years ago the government issued a collective amnesty for illegal immigrants, granting everyone who could prove they had lived in the country for five years the right to “regularise” their status and stay. Over 50,000 did so. The 2000 regularisation was a response to a previous series of church occupations, which had shocked many conservative Catholics, such as Father Herwig Arts, an Antwerp Jesuit and well-known author. “Black families entered our chapel and turned it into a dormitory,” Father Arts complained to the press (Gazet van Antwerpen, 21 November 1998). Father Arts saw men and women sharing beds and cooking in Antwerp’s Jesuit chapel. “They removed the tabernacle, installed a television set and radios, depriving us of the opportunity to pray in our own chapel and say Mass. [...]. It has upset me very much. For me the place has been desecrated,” he said. “I feel I cannot enter it anymore.” At the time Father Arts was severely criticised for his comments. Today he remains silent, as do all Catholic priests, given that the Bishops support the church occupations by the illegal immigrants.
Patrick Dewael, the Belgian minister of the Interior, has said, however, that he will not bow to the demands of the episcopacy and the activists. “Laws are voted in Parliament,” the minister explained, adding that they cannot be changed because hungerstrikers and Bishops demand this. Dewael pointed out that some of the people in the churches do not fulfill any of the criteria to be allowed to stay in Belgium. “Some of them have not even applied for asylum,” he said.
Today Luc Van der Kelen, the (agnostic) editor of Het Laatste Nieuws, Belgium’s largest newspaper, was very critical of the Bishops. The Church, he wrote, “demands that the asylum legislation be changed. This is a farreaching demand, seeing as this legislation has been approved by a large majority of the democratically elected parliament. The Church even goes beyond words. It tries to undermine the policies of minister Dewael with actions in public spaces, viz. the state financed church buildings. [...] The method used in various places is the same one that was once used by the Irish Catholic IRA terrorists: a hungerstrike. This is not very humane, because it endangers the lives of the activists, and it is unethical, because it is a form of moral blackmail of the politicians. [...] One can understand such actions from people who think they have no other alternative, but not from church leaders, who should act responsibly. They are supposed to unite people, not incite them against each other.”
For Catholic believers the situation is all the more painful as the same Bishops have never bothered to take any action to change, let alone, protest Belgium’s legislation regarding abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage and gay adoption. On the contrary, when a Catholic organisation asked for permission to organize a Mass against the impending euthanasia legislation in Brussels Cathedral on 2 March 2002, the use of the Cathedral was prohibited by Cardinal Danneels because it was feared that (Catholic) politicians of the anti-immigration Vlaams Belang party would attend.