Immigrants seek sanctuary in Belgian churches

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

According to the National Catholic Reporter, about 100 Afghans occupied the Church of Ste Croix in Ixelles saying they feared for their lives if they were forced to return to Afghanistan.

They occupied the church without the parish priest's permission since 31 March but seemed well-organised 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. They have toilets and sinks, but no showers or tubs for bathing.

As 65 of the refugees began a hunger strike, local media quoted a government spokesman saying immigration officials would review the Afghans' requests on a case-by-case basis.

Meanwhile, a group of about 50 mostly undocumented African migrants also threatened with deportation occupied the Church of St Giles in Brussels since 6 April.

St Giles' parish priest Fr Christian Wynants said he had no foreknowledge of the occupation. "At the very least, it is a lack of manners," he complained. Police eventually removed the occupiers from the church.

Ali Bouchrouk, an Algerian who has a residency permit but whose wife does not, told theNational Catholic Reporter, "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.

Eric de Beukelkaer, spokesman of the Belgian bishops' conference, said Church leaders were "uneasy" about the "systematic nature" of these occupations and disapproved of occupations conducted without the prior agreement of the parish priest.

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

Immigrants seek sanctuary in Belgium churches (National Catholic Reporter 21/4/06)

Bishops united on immigration (National Catholic Reporter 21/4/06)

21 Apr 2006