June 13th, 2021 | Willy Fautré | Freedom of Religion and Belief | HRWF

After the deportation of a Turkish imam a few months ago, Minister of Domestic Affairs, Equal Opportunities and Integration of the Flemish government, Bart Somers (Open VLD), decided to put to an end the recognition and financing of a Pakistani mosque last week.

Pakistani mosque in Antwerp

On 8 June, Minister Somers decided last week to cancel the recognition of the Pakistani mosque in Antwerp named ‘Antwerp Islamic Association’. It had been recognized since 2007, which had made it eligible for financing by the Flemish government and the Belgian state.

Since 2016, the Islamic community has been embroiled in an internal conflict about the appointment of an imam.

The former imam recognized by the public powers had been dismissed by the Antwerp Islamic Association and replaced by a another one who is not approved by the Flemish government but who is approved by the Executive of the Muslims of Belgium (EMB), the official interlocutor of the Belgian State.

Minister Somers considered that the Pakistani Muslim community does not fulfill the recognition criterion of ‘social relevance’ any more which includes enduring relations with the local government and the local community (neighborhood) as well as social cohesion. The local police sometimes had to intervene in brawls opposing the followers of the two imams.

Deportation of a Turkish imam near Genk (Limburg)

On the 8 June meeting of the Commission on Domestic Affairs, Equal Opportunities and Integration of the Flemish Parliament, Minister Bart Somers announced that after consulting the Federal Ministry of Justice and other relevant Belgian institutions, he had ordered a Turkish imam on 4 February 2021 to leave the Belgian territory. He confirmed that the imam appointed by the Diyanet in Turkey had gone back to his country on 5 April.

Noteworthy is that the Turkish directorate cannot appoint imams to work in recognized Muslim communities in Belgium without a working permit and the approval of the federal and regional authorities as the salaries and retirement pensions of clerics are paid by the State. Belgium also has its share of responsibility in this incident.

The imam was working for the mosque of Houthalen-Helchteren known as the Green Mosque. He was deported after claiming on the Facebook page of the mosque that “homosexuality is a disease, causes decay and is banned by Islam”. The imam also referred to an homophobic Friday sermon of Turkey’s President of Religious Affairs Ali Erbaş who  publicly declared that: “Islam curses homosexuality”.

Sammy Mahdi, Belgium’s Federal Government’s Minister in charge of Asylum and Migration, refused to extend the residence permit of the controversial imam who had been living in Belgium for three years.

“Those who come here to sow the seeds of hatred in our society do not have a place here,” the Minister had commented.

Appointed by Turkey’s Presidency of Religious Affairs to work in Belgium, the imam made an application to Belgium’s Immigration Authority in October 2020 and requested the extension of his residence and work permits.

Mahdi also said, “We cannot tolerate this stigmatization of the homosexual community and spreading of such messages. If you have the right to work as an imam in Belgium, you have an exemplary duty. Everyone who does not want to hold our values will have to bear the consequences.”

The board of directors of the mosque quickly removed the controversial imam and replaced him by another one when the issue became public.

Considering the swift reaction of the mosque, Minister Somers did not hold the mosque responsible for the incident and decided not to deprive it from its registration and its public financing but he said it is being put under increased surveillance.

Some HRWF comments

In both incidents, the Flemish Decree was used by the Flemish Government to possibly cancel the recognition and financing of the said faith-based communities. The names of the controversial imams were not revealed anywhere and further research about the background of these actors is almost impossible.

Homophobia cannot be accepted in a democratic country and must be prosecuted. Consequently, it makes senses that public powers should not finance a faith-based community and/or its leader making homophobic statements.

The incident in the Turkish mosque shows that homophobic statements can be a reason to trigger the mechanism of removal of recognition and financing of a faith-based community by the Flemish Government on the basis of the current or future Flemish Decree. It means the (alleged) violation of one single provision of it can be used for this purpose in the upcoming new decree which contains 72 articles and will soon be proposed to the vote of the Flemish Parliament.

The residence permit of the Turkish Dyianet imam was not prolonged on the basis of the accusation of homophobia but he was never taken to and sentenced by a court in Belgium on this ground.

The text of the controversial statement of the Turkish imam is not quoted anywhere and his name was not revealed.

Because of the risk to lose its recognition, the mosque decided to quickly fire its imam. In the future this might lead to theological self-censorship of religious communities about teaching their century-old beliefs in their own premises while the Belgian constitution provides for the mutual autonomy of state and religions.

These remarks show that the relations between state and religions are now determined by new paradigms in an increasingly secularized Belgium.

Clerics of other faith-based communities, recognized and financed by the state, have shared their concerns with HRWF about what they perceive as judicial insecurity.

Concerns of other state-recognized religions

On the side of other recognized religions, there are serious concerns about the intrusion of state institutions in their beliefs, their teachings inside their premises and their freedom of expression in the public space. What they consider a sin might be prosecuted as hate speech or discrimination.

There is also some perplexity about the increased mistrust towards them as well and the creation of a control agency with a budget of 3 million Euro which will be able to control the implementation of the new decree by 95% of the communities per year.

The powers of that new agency are considered disproportionate and the legality of some provisions is questioned by some:

  • Unexpected visits to a place of worship
  • Full access to all its spaces
  • Identity control of all persons present
  • Interrogation of all persons present
  • Access to all documents, incl. copies
  • Police assistance, if so desired.

Lack of proportionality is also denounced by some as the failure to fulfill one single requirement of the decree can lead to the annulment of the recognition and/or the suspension or limitation of the subsidies.

The Roman Catholic Church is not immune either. Indeed, in a case against Jehovah’s Witnesses in Ghent, the court of first instance ruled in March that their Biblical teaching and practice about social distancing between their members and excommunicated members was equivalent to incitement to hatred and discrimination based on religion. The decision is being appealed.

Similar proceedings could be instituted against the Catholic Church in Belgium, and any other country, as their priests have recently been forbidden by the Pope from blessing same-sex couples and could hereby be accused of discriminating against homosexuals and homophobia.