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Issue Date:  May 19, 2006

Church occupations continue in Belgium, begin in France

Brussels, Belgium

Church occupations in Belgium, which began at the end of March ( NCR, April 21), show no sign of letting up. As of May 9, at least 18 churches and two parish buildings were occupied by immigrants hoping to pressure the government to regularize their status. The occupiers are refugees and migrants whose resident permits have expired or who are in the country illegally.

The immigrants have won some support from the Belgian church. Bishop André-Mutien Léonard of Namur, known for his conservative positions on moral and ethical questions, revealed May 4 that he was allowing asylum seekers to occupy a room of his episcopal palace. Léonard said, “It is inhuman to expel people who do not have documents from our country when they are well integrated.”

The Magdalenakapel in Antwerp was occupied May 1. The church belongs to the Sant’Edgidio community, an international Catholic lay movement headquartered in Rome. In a statement published in the Flemish newspaper De Morgen May 4, the Belgium community said it would allow occupation of the church until May 14 and pledged continuing support of the migrants.

Minister of Interior Patrick Dewael told Flemish television that bishops’ appeals in favor of immigrants was an intrusion of the church into politics. He also denounced hunger strikes undertaken by about 100 immigrants as “blackmail” unacceptable in a democracy.

The police forcefully evacuated a building in Brussels’ St. Gilles Parish, where about 20 immigrants were on a hunger strike since last month. Authorities said the evacuation was ordered after two cases of tuberculosis were discovered among the hunger strikers.

In France meanwhile, the Church of St. Merri in central Paris was occupied May 8 by 25 immigrants, mainly Africans. The parish priest Jacques Merrienne said the group was seeking an appointment with Minister of Interior Nicolas Sarkozy, an objective Merrienne found “unrealistic.” He said he told them he supported their cause but asked them to leave the church.

The French parliament is discussing a bill favored by Sarkozy that would increase immigration restrictions. French church leaders have criticized the bill for making family reunification more difficult and expulsion from France much easier.

The churches’ stance prompted Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin to write to Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard, president of the French Bishop’s Conference, and the Council of Christian Churches. He said he is committed to European conventions that protect privacy and family life, but illegal immigration had to be fought because it leads “to maintaining and extending unacceptable situations of social precariousness and the exploitation of human misery.”

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

National Catholic Reporter, May 19, 2006

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