Religious beliefs in Belgium
In terms of area, Belgium encompasses nearly 12,000 square miles (30,528 km) of total land space and has a population, as of 2012, of about 11 million inhabitants.[i]
Geographically, Belgium straddles the ethnic and cultural boundary between Germanic and Latin Europe and is home to two main cultural and linguistic groups: the Dutch-speaking, mostly Flemish community, which makes up roughly 59 percent of the population; and the French-speaking, mostly Walloon population, comprising 41 percent of Belgian inhabitants. There are additionally a small group of German speakers in the country that are recognized by the government.[ii]
The two largest regions in Belgium are the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders in the north and the French-speaking region of Wallonia in the south. The capital city of Brussels and the surrounding Brussels-Capital Region are officially bilingual and are located in a mostly French-speaking enclave within the Flemish Region. A German-speaking Community exists in the eastern portion of the mostly French-speaking region of Wallonia. Belgium's linguistic diversity and related political conflicts are reflected in its political history and complex system of government.
In the past, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg were known as the Low Countries, which used to cover a somewhat larger area than the current Benelux group of states. The region was called Belgica in Latin, after the Roman province of Gallia Belgica, which covered more or less the same area. From the end of the Middle Ages until the 17th century, the area of Belgium was a prosperous and cosmopolitan center of commerce and culture. From the 16th century until the Belgian Revolution of 1830, when Belgium seceded from the Netherlands, the area of Belgium served as the battleground between many European powers, causing it to be dubbed the "Battlefield of Europe,"[iii] a reputation strengthened by both World Wars.
Upon its independence from the Netherlands Kingdom, Belgium participated in the Industrial Revolution and, during the course of the 20th century, possessed a number of colonies in Africa, all of which have since claimed independence. The second half of the 20th century was marked by rising tensions between the Flemish people and the French-speaking Walloons, fueled by differences in language and the unequal economic development of Flanders and Wallonia. This continuing antagonism has led to several sweeping reforms and a transition from a unitary to a federal arrangement. The formation of the last federal government in 2010 lasted 18 months.[iv]
Religious Beliefs in Belgium: Introduction
According to the Belgian Constitution, religious freedom/liberty is guaranteed to all citizens, and although not all religious groups are recognized by the government, the people of Belgium are free to practice any religion of their choosing.[v]
In addition to having freedom of religion, Belgium also has a separation between the Church and State. Therefore, the State cannot force someone to adhere to a certain religion nor can it ask someone to which religion he or she adheres.
The Belgian census, which as of 2013 no longer exists, never inquired about religion beliefs, making it difficult to pinpoint the exact percentage each religion constituted in Belgium. However, a recent independent report showed that a majority of the population (roughly 62 percent) adheres to some form of Christianity: nearly 60 percent of the Belgian population self identifies as Roman Catholic, and another two percent of the population self identifies as either Protestant (1.7%) or Orthodox (0.3%).[vi]
The second-most practiced faith in Belgium is Islam, accounting for about 6-8 percent of the population.[vii] Most Muslims make their home in the greater Brussels region of the country, although there are small pockets in both Flanders and Wallonia where Islam is also practiced.
The Jewish community in Belgium numbers about 40,000, and Anglicans number another 21,000. The largest unrecognized religions in the country include the Jehovah's Witnesses, with 27,000 members and Mormons, with about 3,000 members. Other religions practiced in the country include Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism and Hinduism.[viii]
About 350,000 Belgian citizens belong to "laics," the government's term for non-confessional philosophical organizations. Unofficial estimates report that up to 10% (or more) of the population does not practice any religion at all, a group that includes both Agnostics (non-religious) and Atheists.[ix]
The law of Belgium officially recognizes all the Christian churches in Belgium (Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, etc.), as well as Islam and Judaism. Leaders of the Buddhist churches have also asked to have their religion officially recognized under the secular organization standard. Official recognition means that priests (referred to as "counselors" within the secular organizations or laics) receive a state stipend. It also gives parents the freedom to choose any recognized denomination to provide religious education for their children if they attend a state school.[x]
After attaining self-rule from the federal state level in religious matters, the Parliament of Flanders enacted a new Flemish regional decree on recognized religious denominations, installing democratically elected church councils for all recognized religious denominations and made them subject to the same administrative rules as local government bodies—with important repercussions as far as financial accounting and open government are concerned. In 2006, however, the Catholic bishops still appointed candidates to the Catholic Church councils because they had not decided on the criteria for eligibility. That is, they were afraid that Catholic candidates who might get elected would be merely baptized Catholics. By 2008, however, the bishops decided that candidates for the election of the church councils had only to prove that they were over 18, a member of the parish church serving the town or village in which they were residents, and that they were baptized Catholic. Thus normal elections took place.[xi]
History of Religion In Belgium
Following the Roman period in European history, Christianity was reintroduced to the southern Low Countries, of which Belgium was a part. In the 7th century AD, a number of abbeys were founded in the country’s remote regions. These served as the springboard from which Christianity would flourish. This flourishing happened under the watchful eye of the Merovingian dynasty, and later of Charlemagne, who even waged war to impose the new religion.[xii]
The Protestant Reformation era was especially significant in the convergence of events which ultimately formed modern Belgium. In 1523, for instance, Belgium became the site of the first martyrdom of Lutherans by the Roman Catholic Church, as Augustinian monks Johann Esch and Heinrich Voes were burned at the stake in Brussels for their conversion to the Lutheran doctrine.[xiii]
Before the end of the 16th century, Belgium became part of the Spanish empire—an empire which showed as little tolerance for complacent or liberal Catholics as it did for Protestants. One of the major effects of this union was that Belgian Catholics, fearing the Inquisition and preferring to live with Protestants who would at least tolerate them, migrated in large numbers to the Dutch Republic.
Following the Spanish military conquest of 1592, and until the re-establishment of religious freedom in 1781 by the Patent of Toleration under Joseph II of Austria, Roman Catholicism was the sole religion allowed (on penalty of death) in the territories now forming Belgium. However, a small number of Protestant groups did manage to survive, at places such as Maria-Horebeke, Dour, Tournai, Eupen and Hodimont.[xiv]
Religion was a major sticking point between the Roman Catholic south and the predominantly Protestant north of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, formed in 1815. When that union broke up in 1830, thus establishing the Kingdom of Belgium in the south, Roman Catholicism remained as the predominant religious faith. During the first century of the newly-established Kingdom of Belgium, Catholicism became a socially binding factor, one that was deemed even more important than the differences in language (Dutch vs. French). However, as religion became increasingly less important to Belgians in the 20th century, those differences once again boiled to the surface—evidence of the positive effect religion can have on a community.
Up until the late 20th century, Roman Catholicism continued to play a vital role in the politics of Belgium. One prime example of this are the so-called "Schools' wars" that broke out between the philosophically left-wing parties and the Catholic (later Christian Democrat) party, which took place between 1879 and 1884 and later between 1954 and 1958. Another important controversy happened in 1990 when the very religious Catholic monarch, King Baudouin I, refused to officially ratify an abortion bill that had already been approved by the Belgian Parliament. The king then asked Prime Minister Wilfried Martens to find a solution, which proved novel. The government declared King Baudouin unfit to fulfill his constitutional duties as monarch for one day, while Government ministers signed the bill in his place, and then proceeded to reinstate the king after the abortion law had come into effect.[xv]
Although religion remains an important part of Belgian life, it no longer holds the same status as it once did. Moreover, studies show that the Belgian people are growing less and less religious; fewer people attend religious services regularly and the percentage of agnostics and atheists in the country has been on the rise since the 1970s.[xvi]
Christianity and BelgiumRoman Catholicism in Belgium
Throughout Belgium’s history, Roman Catholicism has served as the country’s main religion. The faith is especially strong in the Flanders region, although a recent study showed that less than 10 percent of the population attends the Roman Catholic mass regularly—down from 20 percent just 10 years ago.[xvii]
There are eight Catholic dioceses in Belgium, including one archdiocese, the seat of the archiepiscopal residence and St. Rumbolds Cathedral, located in the old Flemish city of Mechelen (Malines in French). Since 2010, the archbishop of Mechelen and primate of all Belgium has been Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard. In 2012, there were roughly 1900 priests in the archdiocese of Malines-Brussels, but most of them are either retired or on the verge of retirement.[xviii]
The Belgian church established and sponsors the Catholic University of Leuven, the largest university in Belgium. It is considered one of the "World's Best Colleges and Universities" according to the latest poll of US News and World Report.
The archbishop of Mechelen is ex officio the Great Chancellor of the Catholic University of Leuven. It was founded by the bishops of Belgium in 1834. Some of its most notable graduates include Georges Lemaître, priest, astronomer, and proposer of the Big Bang theory; Otto von Habsburg, current head of the Habsburg family; Saint Alberto Hurtado, Chilean Jesuit priest who was canonized in 2005; Charles Jean de la Vallee-Poussin, mathematician who proved the prime number theorem; and Christian de Duve, winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1974; among others. The Belgian church also oversees the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, the National Basilica of Belgium.[xix]
The Belgian Catholic Church is part of the global Roman Catholic Church and is under the spiritual leadership of the Pope, the curia in Rome and the Conference of Belgian Bishops.
Although church attendance is dropping by an average of 0.5 percent annually,[xx] the Roman Catholic Church remains a major force in the lives of Belgians.
Protestantism-Anglicanism in Belgium
Protestants in Belgium, including those that adhere to the Anglican faith, make up but a small religious minority. Most Protestant churches are overseen by the United Protestant Church of Belgium.[xxi] Under the Protestant umbrella, there are many different denominations that can be found in Belgium, including Lutheranism, Methodism, Presbyterianism and a number of evangelical faiths.[xxii]
Belgium has a small number of Anglican Communion churches, all of which are part of the Diocese of Europe, including the Pro Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, Brussels.[xxiii]
Islam in Belgium
Although Islam is currently the second-largest religion in Belgium, the presence of Muslims in the country is a fairly new phenomenon.
The main waves of immigrants from Muslim countries began in the early 1960s when migration agreements were signed with Morocco and Turkey and then at the end of the 1960s with Algeria and Tunisia. In contrast with the Netherlands, Belgium had no relations with the Muslim world during the colonial period. In 1974, Belgium imposed strict conditions on the entry of foreign labor but remained one of the most liberal countries in Europe for family reunion policy.[xxiv]
Reliable demographic data on Belgian Muslims is not easy to locate. That’s because the government no longer conducts a national census, and even when a census did exist, no questions were asked about religious affiliation.
The number of Muslims in Belgium is estimated to be between 320,000 to 450,000, accounting for roughly 4% percent of the total population of the country. As in many of the other countries belonging to the European Union, the Muslim population in Belgium is very young. Almost 35 percent of the Turks and Moroccans, the largest Muslim groups in the country, are below 18 years old, compared with 18 percent of the native Belgians. As a result of the age and spatial distribution, very high proportions of the youth in certain areas are Muslim. One quarter of those living in Brussels and under 20 years of age are of Muslim origin.[xxv]
Statistical data from shows a heavy concentration of Muslim Moroccans (125,000) and Turks (70,000) in Belgium, with smaller numbers hailing from Algeria (8,500), Tunisia (4,000), Bosnia-Herzegovina, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Syria and Egypt. According to Marechal, over 100,000 people from traditionally ‘Muslim countries’ had acquired Belgium citizenship between 2005 and 2012.[xxvi]
Back in 2007, a sociologist named Jan Hertogen published statistics indicating that Moroccans (264,974) had replaced Italians (262,120) as the largest immigrant group in Belgium as of January 1, 2004. Turks are in third place with 159,336 people. Hertogen’s methodology has been criticized by the Belgian Center for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism, headed by Jozef De Witte, for being too simplistic, leading to distorted results.[xxvii]
The Muslim population is most concentrated in Brussels (20% of the total population) with most other Muslims living in the industrial areas of the French-speaking south. The Brussels conurbation is home for more than 50 percent of the Moroccans. They can be also found in Antwerp, Liege, and Hainaut, as well as in the region of Charleroi and Limburg. Half of the Turks have settled in Flanders, especially Antwerp, Ghent and Limburg. They live also in certain districts of Brussels (Schaerbeek, Saint-Josse, etc.) and in the Walloon area of Belgium in the region of Hainaut and Liege.[xxviii]
Most Muslims living in Belgium adhere to the Sunni denomination of the faith. Other denominations include found here include:[xxix]
- Ahmadiyya. The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community established itself in Belgium in 1982. The Baitul Islam Mosque is the first mosque in Belgium. The Baitul Salam Mission House is in Dilbeek, a town just outside the capital city of Brussels. There also is the Baitur Raheem Mosque in the town of Hassel.
- Shia. Shia Muslims are concentrated in Brussels. Community relations between Shias and Salafists have at times been tense due to conflict abroad, and in March 2012 turned violent when a Salafist entered a Shia mosque and killed its Imam.
The religion known as Judaism has a long and storied history in Belgium, one that stretches from the 1st Century AD to the present. On the eve of World War II, over 65,000 Jews called Belgium home, but after the war and the Holocaust, their number today is cut in half. There has recently, however, been a significant immigration of Jews from other European countries (namely from France and the Netherlands) and Israel to Belgium.[xxx]
Today, there are just over 42,000 Jews in Belgium, many of whom live in the Jewish Community of Antwerp (numbering some 20,000), one of the largest single communities of Jews in Europe, and one of the last places in the world where Yiddish is the primary language of the people (mirroring certain Orthodox and Hassidic communities in New York and Israel).[xxxi] In addition, a very high percentage (95%) of Jewish children in Antwerp receives a Jewish education. Nationally, there are five Jewish newspapers and more than 45 active synagogues, 30 of which are in the city of Antwerp.
Minority (Unrecognized) Religions of Belgium
In addition to Christianity, Islam and Judaism, all of which are recognized by the Belgian government, there are also several minority or unrecognized religions that are practiced in various regions of the country. Some of these include:
- Buddhism. Buddhism is a religion that originated in India and was developed by Buddha (Gautama). The religion later spread to China, Burma, Japan, Tibet, and parts of southeast Asia. Buddhism is based on the premise that life is full of suffering caused by desire and that the way to end this suffering is through enlightenment that enables one to halt the endless sequence of births and deaths to which one is otherwise subject.[xxxii]
- Sikhism. Sikhism is a monotheistic religion founded in northern India in the 16th century by the guru Nanak. Sikhism rejects caste distinctions, idolatry, and asceticism and is characterized by a belief in a cycle of reincarnation from which humans can free themselves by living righteous lives as active members of society.[xxxiii]
- Hinduism. Hinduism represents a diverse body of religion, philosophy, and cultural practice native to and predominant in India, characterized by a belief in reincarnation and a supreme being of many forms and natures, by the view that opposing theories are aspects of one eternal truth, and by a desire for liberation from earthly evils.[xxxiv]
- Jainism. Jainism is an ascetic religion of India, founded in the sixth century BC, which teaches the immortality and transmigration of the soul and denies the existence of a perfect or supreme being.
- Jehovah’s Witness. The religion known as Jehovah’s Witness is a denomination founded in the United States during the late 19th century in which active evangelism is practiced, the imminent approach of the millennium is preached, and war and organized governmental authority in matters of conscience are strongly opposed.[xxxv]
Finally, experts believe that between 10%-20% of Belgium’s population is either non-religious or does not believe in a God or spiritual being of any type, known as agnostics and atheists, respectively. [xxxvi] Numbers for both these groups have risen steadily over the past two decades[xxxvii]—evidence that the population of Belgium, and of Europe as a whole, is slowly turning away from religion to a more secular way of life.
[xiii] Cline, Austin. “Church, State and Religion in Belgium.” Atheism.about.com. Retrieved 21 May 2014.
[xvi] Cline, Austin. “Church, State and Religion in Belgium.” Atheism.about.com. Retrieved 21 May 2014.
[xxvii] Kern, Soeren. “Muslims in Belgium and Holland: 2013.” Clarionproject.org. Retrieved 21 May 2014.[xxxiv] “Religion in Belgium.” Wn.com. Retrieved 21 May 2014.
[xxxv] “Countries Compared By Religion: Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Nationmaster.com. Retrieved 21 May 2014.