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Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

Some observers continued to state a number of mosques opted not to seek official recognition because they received sufficient foreign funding and preferred to operate without government oversight. Notwithstanding a stated government policy of extending recognition to more mosques (which would make them eligible for government funding) and curbing foreign, radical Islamic influence over them by reducing the mosques’ reliance on foreign funding and providing authorities with greater oversight, the number of recognized mosques decreased. The Flemish regional minister of interior questioned the existing recognition of some mosques and withdrew recognition of one of them during the year, reducing the number of recognized mosques nationally from 84 to 83. The Flemish government, formed on September 30, announced a strengthening of the recognition criteria by strengthening the security screening of mosques to ensure imams and worshippers were not radicalized and were not subject to direct foreign influence.

Longstanding applications for government recognition by Buddhists and Hindus remained pending at year’s end. Buddhists filed a request for recognition in 2008, and Hindus in 2013. Representatives of the Buddhist and Hindu communities said they did not receive an official explanation for the delay as of year’s end. There were no other pending recognition requests by religious groups. Despite the lack of recognition, Buddhists continued to receive federal government subsidies. The government did not give Hindus any subsidies. In September a member of parliament submitted a draft bill calling for the recognition of Buddhism and for a 74,100 euro ($83,300) annual subsidy to Hindus.

The government maintained its ban on the wearing of religious symbols by employees in public sector jobs requiring interaction with the public. The September agreement forming a coalition government in Flanders stated the Flemish network for public schools, Go!, would enforce a general ban on wearing headscarves. The ban applied to schools in Flanders and Flemish schools in Brussels. Even before the Flemish government’s announcement, virtually all public schools in Flanders maintained such a ban. Most public schools outside of Flanders also continued to ban headscarves, in accordance with government policy allowing individual schools to decide whether to impose such bans. According to media reports, at least 90 percent of Francophone community public schools banned headscarves.

There were no reported changes in procedures by city and town administrations, which Muslim groups have said withhold or delay approval for the construction of new mosques and Islamic cultural centers. In Court-St.-Etienne, construction of a mosque financed with private contributions began in February. Local authorities approved the project in 2018 after delays and four previous rejections. In April city authorities in Lodelinsart approved a mosque construction project, with revisions, after neighbors filed 119 complaints against the project. In September city authorities denied a proposed mosque construction in Jette; neighbors had filed 154 complaints against that project, citing such issues as the scope of the construction and its impact on parking and transportation.

As announced in 2018 following a parliamentary commission report on terrorist attacks, the federal government terminated Saudi Arabia’s lease on the Great Mosque in Brussels effective March 31. The government said it terminated the lease because the Great Mosque was spreading Wahhabi Salafism, which the government stated played a role in spreading violent radicalism. Saudi Arabia had signed a 99-year lease for the building in 1969. The government called for the creation of a new, pan-Islamic institution to manage the mosque and said the Muslim Executive, the Muslim community’s official representative in discussions with the government, would be responsible for creating the institution and ensuring it began managing the mosque by the lease termination date. The transition, which was not completed by March 31, continued at year’s end. The Great Mosque, however, remained open, operated by the Muslim Executive under a temporary contract.

The Jewish and Muslim communities maintained their legal challenge to the decisions by the Flanders and Walloon regional governments to ban slaughter without prior stunning. The Walloon ban went into effect on September 1. There were no temporary slaughterhouses authorized in Brussels and Walloon Region to carry out slaughter without prior stunning during Islamic holidays. A large slaughterhouse that performed ritual slaughter continued to operate in Brussels but could not accommodate all requests. The Belgian Constitutional Court had been scheduled to decide the issue on April 4 but postponed its ruling and sought guidance from the CJEU. Specifically, the Constitutional Court asked the CJEU to clarify restrictions and exemptions regarding ritual slaughter, the scope of these rules and their compatibility with religious freedom, and the distinction between ritual slaughter and other forms of animal killing. At year’s end, the CJEU had not responded to the Constitutional Court’s queries. More than 50 religious groups appealed to the Constitutional Court to overturn the slaughter ban, according to Religion News Service.

In April eight religious leaders representing the Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Evangelical, Jewish, and Muslim communities issued a public statement calling for schools in the country to maintain compulsory religion courses, which they said encouraged dialogue among cultures and religions. The statement followed recommendations by some politicians to introduce secularism in the constitution, which some observers said could eventually lead to an end of religious courses in schools. The government decided not to consider a change in the constitution.

According to a report on the website of state broadcaster Belgian Francophone Radio and Television, following the May general elections, federal railway agency employees in Brussels who supported what political analysts described as far-right parties delivered Nazi salutes and made racist comments at work. The company opened an internal investigation of these acts and released a public statement denouncing them.

Media reported that in June the Liege prosecutor dropped discrimination charges against a Turkish man who in 2014 put a sign on the door outside his cafe reading in French, “Entrance allowed for dogs, but not for Zionists” and in Turkish, “In this establishment, dogs are allowed, but Jews will never be.” A spokesperson for the Liege prosecutor’s office did not provide a reason for dismissing the charges.

Media reported that in November the West Flanders public prosecutor’s office declined to prosecute four supporters of the soccer team Club Brugge for singing anti-Semitic songs during a match in August 2018. The individuals were among a group of fans who chanted, “My father was a commando, my mother was in the SS, together they burned Jews, ‘cause Jews burn the best.” In 2018 the national soccer association banned the four from entering all major stadiums in the country for three years. According to media, prosecutors explained their decision saying the stadium ban was sufficient punishment. Michael Freilich, a Jewish parliamentarian (MP) from the New Flemish Alliance Party, criticized the decision.

In 2018, the most recent year for which information was available, the Ministry of Justice allocated approximately 112 million euros ($125.8 million) to religious and secular humanist groups (up slightly from 111 million euros [$124.7 million] in 2017): 92.3 million euros ($103.7 million) to recognized religious groups (including 4.9 million euros [$5.5 million] to Muslims; the individual allocations to other religious groups were unavailable), 19.5 million euros ($21.9 million) to secular humanists, and 160,000 euros ($180,000) to Buddhists. According to the 2018 report of the Observatory of Religions and Secularism at the Free University of Brussels, the Muslim community, unlike other recognized religious groups, continued to receive a smaller percentage of the government’s allocation than what nongovernmental sources estimated was its current share of the population.

Police continued to offer a voluntary, day-long course, “The Holocaust, the Police, and Human Rights” at the Dossin Barracks in Malines, site of a Holocaust museum and memorial. The training consisted of a visit to the museum at the barracks site from which Nazis transported Jews and Roma to concentration camps to the east during World War II, and a workshop focusing on radicalization, collective violence, exclusion, and polarization. The training was a joint collaboration among federal and local police, the center at the Dossin Barracks, and Unia. According to federal police, approximately 10,000 persons, approximately one-fifth of the total force, had undergone the training since its inception in 2014.

In January the government revived a federal-level taskforce to combat anti-Semitism, in response to Unia’s request to reactivate the “Anti-Semitism Council.” The council was created in 2004 to combat anti-Semitism but had not met since 2013. Vice Prime Minister and Minister for Equal Opportunities Kris Peeters said the government revived the taskforce in response to evidence from national and European Union (EU)-level rapporteurs that violent, anti-Semitic incidents were on the rise in recent years.

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The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future