International Religious Freedom Report
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

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, and government policy continued to contribute to the free practice of religion.

There are generally amicable relations among different religious groups in society; however, several religious groups complain of discrimination, particularly groups which have not been accorded official "recognized" status by the Government and those associated primarily with immigrant communities.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has a total area of 11,800 square miles and its population is approximately 10.3 million.

The population is predominantly Roman Catholic. Approximately 75 percent of the population belong 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 approximately 100,000 adherents. The Jewish population is about 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, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), with approximately 3,000 members. Unofficial estimates indicate that approximately 10 percent of the population does not identify with any religion.

According to a 1999 survey by an independent academic group, only 11.2 percent of the population attend weekly religious services. However, religion does still play a role in major life events--65 percent of the children born in Belgium are baptized; 49.2 percent of couples opt for a religious marriage; and 76.6 percent of funerals include religious services.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice.

The Government accords "recognized" status to Roman Catholicism, Protestantism (including Evangelicals), Judaism, Anglicanism, Islam, and Orthodox Christianity (Greek and Russian), and these religions receive subsidies from government revenues. The Government also supports the freedom to participate in nonreligious philosophical organizations. These secular humanist groups (or "laics") serve as a seventh recognized "religion" and their organizing body, the Central Council of Non-Religious Philosophical Communities of Belgium, receives funds and benefits similar to those of the six other recognized religions. According to the Government, the nonconfessional philosophical organizations have 350,000 members. However, the laics claim 1.5 million members.

By law, each recognized religion has the right to provide teachers at government expense for religious instruction in schools. The Government also pays the salaries, retirement, and lodging costs of ministers and subsidizes the construction and renovation of church buildings for recognized religions. The ecclesiastical administrations of recognized religions have legal rights and obligations, and the municipality in which they are located must pay any debts that they incur. Some subsidies are the responsibility of the federal government while the regional and municipal governments pay others. According to an independent academic review, government at all levels spent $523 million (23 billion Belgian francs) on subsidies for recognized religions in 2000. Of that amount, 79.2 percent went to the Catholic Church, 13 percent to secular humanist groups, 3.5 percent to Muslims, 3.2 percent to Protestants, 0.6 percent to Jews, 0.4 percent to Orthodox Christians, and 0.1 percent to Anglicans. Taxpayers who object to contributing to these subsidies have no legal recourse.

The Government applies the following five criteria in deciding whether or not to grant recognition to a religious group: 1) the religion must have a structure or hierarchy; 2) the group must have a sufficient number of members; 3) the religion must have existed in the country for a long period of time; 4) it must offer a social value to the public; and 5) the religion 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." A religious group seeking official recognition applies to the Ministry of Justice, which then conducts a thorough review before recommending approval or rejection. Final approval of recognized status is the sole responsibility of the Parliament but in practice the Parliament generally accepts the decision of the Ministry of Justice. A group whose application is refused by the Ministry of Justice may appeal the decision to the Council of State.

The lack of recognized status does not prevent religious groups from practicing freely. Nonrecognized groups do not qualify for government subsidies but can qualify for tax-exempt status as nonprofit organizations.

In 1999 the Federal Synod of Protestant and Evangelical Churches in Belgium (a group of evangelical Christian organizations) claimed discrimination based on the Government's refusal to grant it recognized status separate from the recognized Protestant group. The Government insisted that its decision was consistent with its treatment of other groups such as Islam and Orthodox Christianity in which different branches are represented by a single Executive Council. In late 2000, the Ministry of Justice facilitated discussions between the Evangelical group and the recognized Protestant group, which resolved the dispute by including Evangelical representatives on the existing Protestant Executive Council.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

In response to a number of highly publicized mass suicides in France, Switzerland, and Canada by members of the Solar Temple cult (including some Belgian citizens) in the mid-1990's, the Parliament in 1996 established a special commission to examine the potential dangers that sects may represent to society, especially children, and to recommend policies to deal with those dangers. The parliamentary commission released its report in 1997. It divided sects into two broadly defined categories. The report defined the first category of sects as "organized groups of individuals espousing the same doctrine within a religion." The commission considered sects in this sense to be respectable and to reflect the normal exercise of freedom of religion and assembly provided for by fundamental rights. The second category, "harmful sectarian organizations," 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. Attached to the report was a list of 189 sectarian organizations that were mentioned during testimony before the commission (including groups such as Jehovah's Witnesses, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Church of Scientology, and even the Young Women's Christian Association). Although the introduction to the list clearly stated that there was no intent to characterize any of the groups as "dangerous," the list quickly became known in the press and to the public as the "dangerous sects" list. The Parliament eventually adopted several of the report's recommendations but it never adopted the list itself.

Some religious groups included in the 1997 parliamentary list continue to complain that their inclusion has resulted in discriminatory action against them. For example, Jehovah's Witnesses has been holding its annual convention at the Brussels Exhibition Center since 1935. In March 2001, church officials received a letter notifying them that they could not use that facility for their 2001 meeting. The rejection letter specifically mentioned the appearance of Jehovah's Witnesses on the parliamentary list as reason for the refusal.

In May 1998, to implement one of the report's recommendations, Parliament passed legislation creating a "Center for Information and Advice on Harmful Sectarian Organizations." The Center opened its offices in September 2000. The Center collects open source information on a wide range of religious and philosophical groups and provides upon request information and advice to the public regarding the legal rights of freedom of association, freedom of privacy, and freedom of religion. The Center's library is open to the public and contains information on religion in general as well as on specific religious groups. The library also includes publications provided by various religious organizations including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Scientists, and other religious groups. The Center is authorized to propose policy or legislation to the Government on the problem of sects; however, it is not authorized to provide assessments of individual sectarian organizations to the general public.

The law creating the Center 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 Center is required by law to publish a report on its activities every 2 years. The first report is expected to be released in the fall of 2001.

Parliament implemented another of the report's recommendations, when it passed legislation in October 1998 creating an interagency body that works in conjunction with the Center to coordinate government policy on sects. This interagency coordination group, which includes representatives from law enforcement agencies as well as a number of government ministries, held its first meeting in October 2000 and now meets on a quarterly basis. A subgroup of law enforcement officials meets bi-monthly to exchange information on sect activities. Most law enforcement agencies have an official specifically assigned to deal with sect issues. The Government also has designated one national magistrate in the District Court of First Instance and one local magistrate in each of the 27 judicial districts to monitor cases involving sects.

The parliamentary report also recommended that the country's municipal governments sponsor information campaigns to educate the public, especially children, about the phenomenon of harmful sects. In December 1998, Parliament enacted legislation formally charging the country's State Security with the duty of monitoring 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.

Some courts in the Flanders region continue to stipulate, 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.

Some recognized religions complain of incidents of religious discrimination. The Muslim Executive Council reported that women and girls wearing traditional dress or headscarves in some cases face discrimination in employment and public and private school admissions even though the law does not prohibit such dress.

The Government permits religious instruction in public schools; however, students are not required 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. A seventh choice, a nonconfessional course, is available if the child does not wish a religious course. Private Catholic schools receive government subsidies for working expenses and teacher salaries.

On September 30, 1999, police raided offices and homes of members of the Church of Scientology and seized computers and documents belonging to the Church, including parishioners' confidential spiritual counseling folders. At the end of the period coveredby this report, no arrests or prosecutions had resulted from this raid. A second, smaller raid on the Church of Scientology's Brussels headquarters took place on February 8, 2001 at which time additional documents were seized. Most of the seized computer equipment has been returned to the Church but the documents are still held by the investigating magistrate. The Government has refused to provide additional information on the case since it is still under investigation. The Church of Scientology has stated that the Government's seizure of its computers, materials, and files impedes its ability to practice freely. The Church of Scientology took legal action in 2001 to obtain its documents and has filed a complaint claiming that the Prosecutor's Office provided prejudicial statements to the press in violation of the country's secrecy laws regarding investigations. On March 6, 2001, the Church of Scientology filed a formal complaint against the Government with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance.

In April 2000, the Belgian Consulate in Los Angeles refused to issue visas for missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) to enter the country for missionary work. Similar visas had been processed for decades without problems. The Government explained that this change in policy was an unintended result of the Foreign Worker's Act of 1999 that required religious workers to obtain work permits before applying for a visa to enter the country for religious work. However, the Act specifically exempted workers for the six recognized religions from this requirement. Mormon missionaries were told that they should reapply for visas after obtaining the appropriate work permits. However, since Mormon missionaries are strictly volunteers who pay their own way and receive no salary or subsidy from the Church, they do not qualify for the required work permit. Negotiations between representatives of the Mormons and the Ministry of Interior, facilitated by the U.S. Embassy, led to a resumption of the issuance of visas in July 2000 under special temporary procedures. Visas are now being issued on a regular basis, although at a much slower pace than in the past. The Government still has not devised a permanent solution for the problem.

There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including 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 generally amicable relations among different religions groups in society; however, several religious groups complain of discrimination, particularly groups which have not been accorded official "recognized" status by the Government and those associated primarily with immigrant 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 IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

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. Embassy officials also met regularly with the Director of the Center for Information and Advice on Harmful Sectarian Organizations and closely monitored the Center's activities. Embassy officials continued to monitor the Government's progress toward implementing a permanent solution to the Mormon visa problem.

Officers from the U.S. Department of State's Office of International Religious Freedom visited the country in October 2000 to discuss religious freedom with representatives of various religious groups, nongovernmental organizations, and the Government. The visit reinforced U.S. Government concerns that policies that appear to target some religious groups may become institutionalized and could have the effect of appearing to justify restrictive laws in other countries.

Embassy officials met with representatives of both recognized and nonrecognized religions that reported some form of discrimination during the period covered by this report.

The Embassy Public Affairs Office, through the International Visitors Program, sponsored a tour of the United States for the President of the Muslim Executive Council to discuss religious freedom and religious tolerance issues with American religious leaders and academics.