In and around Brussels, the practice of Islam is outstripping Christianity

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Source: The Economist

LIKE so many other pieces in the European mosaic, Belgium has an idiosyncratic relationship with faith. It is both historically devout and heavily secular in its present-day practices. Its ancient cities are cradles of Christian art and learning, and Catholicism is in many ways the country’s raison d’etre. When it was created in 1830, the kingdom offered a political home to Catholic Dutch-speakers who preferred to unite with French-speaking co-religionists than with Protestants with whom they had a common tongue.  Faith had trumped language. But as Christianity’s role has waned, so too has Belgium’s ability to hold together the two linguistic camps. And a new creed, Islam, is gaining importance all the while.

The royal family, a national linchpin, is devoutly Catholic. In 1990, King Baudouin stepped aside for a day rather than sign a bill legalising abortion. But in 2014, his successor King Philippe disappointed conservative Catholics by signing an exceptionally liberal euthanasia law, extending the practice to terminally ill children.

The easy passage of that law reflected the political strength of non-religious ethical systems. But in contrast with secular France, a lot of religion is taught in Belgian schools; children are generally instructed in the faith of their heritage, be it Christian, Jewish or, in steadily increasing numbers, Muslim. In Brussels, about half the children in state schoolsopt for classes in Islam, although this figure excludes the large share of youngsters who attend private, mostly Catholic schools.

All that is part of the background to a study of religious attitudes among Francophone Belgians, conducted by the Observatory of Religion and Secularism, a helpful resource for the study of faith in Europe.  Respondents came in equal numbers from Wallonia, the country’s Gallic-oriented south, and the Francophone majority in Brussels.

The pollsters were surprised by how many respondents still professed some attachment to a religion. Among all respondents, 20% called themselves practising Catholics and 43% non-practising Catholics; 6% were practising Muslims and 1% non-practising Muslims. With other religions accounting for a few points each, that left 26% who called themselves atheist or agnostic. Jean-Philippe Schreiber, a professor of religous studies who co-commissioned the poll, said a remarkably high number of Belgians “claimed a religious identity” even if it did not affect their behaviour much. That certainly applied to loosely affiliated Catholics; and it might also be true that not every respondent who identified with Islam actually prayed and fasted as the rules lay down.

Then turn to Brussels, some parts of which host large communities of Moroccan and Turkish immigrants, mostly from religiously conservative regions of those countries. Among respondents in the city, practising Catholics amounted to 12% and non-practising ones to 28%. Some 19% were active Muslims and another 4% were of Muslim identity without practising the faith. The atheist/agnostic camp came to 30%.

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