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Issue Date:  April 21, 2006

Immigrants seek sanctuary in Belgium churches

Brussels, Belgium

Refugees whose permission to stay in Belgium has expired have occupied at least five Catholic churches hoping to pressure the government to regularize their status.

About 100 Afghans occupied the Church of Ste. Croix in Ixelles March 31, saying they feared for their lives if they were forced to return to Afghanistan. They occupied the church without the parish priest’s permission but seemed well organized and receiving help from Belgium supporters.

As night approached, the priest asked them to move to another parish building where they continued their protests in a single room, sleeping on mattresses on the floor. They have toilets and sinks, but no showers or tubs for bathing.

A supporter of the Afghans, Edith Mercier told NCR that it is as if the parish priest moved the refugees to a “stable.” She said she is not a parishioner of the Church of Ste. Croix. As 65 of the refugees began a hunger strike April 6, local media quoted a government spokesman saying immigration officials would review the Afghans’ requests on a case-by-case basis.

A group of about 50 mostly undocumented African migrants also threatened with deportation occupied the Church of St. Giles in Brussels April 6. St. Giles’ parish priest Fr. Christian Wynants told NCR he had no foreknowledge of the occupation. “At the very least, it is a lack of manners,” he complained.

This too seemed to be a well organized move on the church. Some Belgian citizens came to the church carrying banners supporting the occupation and others fielded media inquiries. An imam from a nearby mosque was said to have walked with the refugees to the doors of St. Giles. Police eventually removed the occupiers from the church.

Ali Bouchrouk, an Algerian who has a residency permit but whose wife does not, told NCR, “We are in a Catholic country, thus we occupy churches. If we were in Algeria, we would occupy mosques.”

Mercier also admitted the occupation of churches was a calculated strategy. “It is the only thing that works for getting papers,” she said.

Past occupations of churches, most recently St. Boniface, in the center of Brussels, and the same Church of Ste. Croix in 2003 resulted in visa extensions and renewals for refugees.

Eric de Beukelkaer, spokesman of the Belgian bishops’ conference, said Catholic church leaders were “uneasy” about the “systematic nature” of these occupations and disapproved of occupations conducted without the prior agreement of the parish priest. In a letter to priests, Josef De Kesel, auxiliary bishop of the Mechelen-Brussel archdiocese, cautioned them against participation in such initiatives.

Churches in Namur, Etterbeek and Charleroi were also occupied in early April.

Marc Mazgon-Fernandes is a freelance writer based in Brussels, Belgium.

National Catholic Reporter, April 21, 2006

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