Paul Belien, Brussels Journal, May 10, 2006
Monsignor Karl-Josef Rauber, the Papal Nuncio (i.e. the Vatican’s Ambassador) to Belgium, supports the occupations of Belgian churches by illegal immigrants. “The Church has always sided with the weak,” the Nuncio says in today’s issue of the leftist newspaper De Morgen. With his statement the Nuncio comes out in support of the embattled Belgian Catholic Bishops. Hans Geybels, the spokesman of Cardinal Godfried Danneels, the Primate of Belgium, said the Nuncio’s support is “a positive signal.”
During the past weeks the Belgian Bishops have allowed hundreds of squatters — so-called “sans-papiers” or “people without papers [=staying permits]” — to occupy over 20 Belgian churches and turn them into dormitories and Muslim places of prayer. The immigrants demand that they be allowed to stay in Belgium permanently.
Since the late 1990’s individual Belgian Catholic priests have been opening their churches and chapels to immigrants who by Belgian law are subject to expulsion. From the beginning the church occupation (or “church asylum”) movement shocked many conservative Catholics, who complained about the desecration of churches by men and women sharing beds in church, lighting fires and cooking on the floors, installing radios and televisions, removing altars and tabernacles, covering images of Saints and displaying banners with the name of Allah (see pictures here).
Nevertheless, the movement was succesful. In 2000 the Belgian government 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).
Five years later, in 2005, Belgian priests again began to offer “church asylum” to sans-papiers. This time the Belgian government refused to budge. Last March, however, when a group of 118 squatters in the Saint Boniface church in the Brussels suburb of Elsene threatened to go on hunger strike, the Home Secretary, Patrick Dewael, granted them residence permits. There was an ensuing rush on various churches. “The minister himself is to blame for this massive response,” says Father Didier Vanderslycke, one of the priests offering “church asylum.” According to Vanderslycke, “thousands” are looking for “asylum” in churches.
Last week several Belgian Bishops, including Cardinal Godfried Danneels, the Archbishop of Brussels, spoke out in favour of the “church asylum” movement. According to Monsignor Luc Van Looy, the Bishop of Ghent, the Bishops do not want to get involved in politics, but are supporting “social actions.”
The position taken by the Bishops is being criticised by several groups of conservative Catholics, who have started petitions against the desecration of the churches. The church is also being criticised from other quarters. Today Luc Van der Kelen, the (agnostic) editor of Het Laatste Nieuws, Belgium’s largest newspaper, asked the Church what it wants: “Free entry to the country for everyone? Will the Church pay the bill when the social security system collapses?”
An op-ed article in today’s Gazet van Antwerpen, Antwerp’s main (Catholic) newspaper, by Prof. Robert Senelle, one of Belgium’s leading constitutionalists, states that Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt is obliged to call the Nuncio to account because “church asylum” is a violation of article 268 of the Belgian Penal Code which forbids priests to put pressure on the government in order to have the law altered. “Belgium simply cannot regularise 40,000 illegals without papers. This wild immigration will be a disaster for the country,” Senelle writes.
One of the illegal immigrants squatting in an Antwerp chapel said last week: “We ask but a small piece of paper.” However, that “small piece of paper” gives entitlements to Belgium’s generous welfare benefits. Illegal immigrants are already entitled to “urgent medical care” at the expense of the Belgian taxpayers. The amount spent on healthcare for sans-papiers rose from 4.6 million euros in 2000 to 23.4 million euros in 2004.