The new recognition procedure for religious services in Brussels is highly questionable

6 October 2021
Mathias Vanden Borre

In Flanders, the reform of the legislative framework for local religious communities is in its final stages. In Brussels, too, the Brussels Government is presenting its reform plans on the procedure for recognising religious services. “I am still dissatisfied about the fundamental challenges in our capital,” says Mathias Vanden Borre, Brussels MP for the N-VA. “Rudi Vervoort lets go of the reins and provides a big bag of money, but demands hardly any accountability in return.”

The reform does not provide for any form of increased control or transparency of religious communities. There is certainly no question of a specific ban on foreign interference: a major missed opportunity and extremely risky. “I fear the growing influence of fundamentalist religions under foreign influence in Brussels. They will see this reform as an opportunity to infiltrate and undermine our Western society,” Mathias Vanden Borre says.

Lower threshold, more money

The threshold for recognition is set extraordinarily low. A local faith community must be on a list for three years and is then as good as automatically recognised. “We must however keep a close eye on foreign preachers and watch whether they are respecting our democratic legal principles and fundamental human rights. That is still too infrequently the case today and will deteriorate further with this ordinance. The region contributes 30% of the expenses of the religious communities. But if several local religious communities decide to unite (read: merge), the region takes on 40% of the expenses. Ironically, cooperation is encouraged, while this remains a major taboo for municipal authorities,” Matias Vanden Borre notes.

No “win for life” in Flanders

In Flanders, the draft decree offers a much clearer framework. “What is preached in houses of worship? How are they funded? Recognition is no longer a ‘win for life’: we ensure enhanced monitoring and remediation, even after the recognition. This will be done by the Flemish Information and Screening Service, which is yet to be set up,” says Flemish MP Nadia Sminate. “Unfortunately, we find that certain foreign regimes abuse religion to infiltrate believers and poison our society with hateful discourse. That is why we are taking strict measures to combat this,” adds Flemish MP Maaike De Vreese.

No powerful signal from Brussels

Yet people in Brussels seem not to be aware of any danger. Mathias Vanden Borre: “What the Brussels reform lacks above all is a strong signal: those who do not respect the rules of our society can lose their recognition and expect sanctions. An explicit ban on foreign interference is absolutely necessary, but there is no trace of it in this reform. In a cosmopolitan city such as Brussels, where different cultures and religions live together, there is no place for a negative influence on Brussels citizens through religion,” warns the N-VA MP, who has submitted amendments to this effect.

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