The long-awaited announcement of the successor to the retiring Catholic archbishop of Brussels, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, has sparked an unusual outcry in Belgium. The new archbishop, André-Mutien Léonard, is sometimes called “the Belgian Ratzinger” for his conservative views. Danneels ranks as one of the last liberal prelates in a Church hierarchy that has turned increasingly traditional under Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict.
A Belgian court is due to rule next week on a ban on the Muslim headscarf at two schools in Dutch-speaking Flanders, an issue that has led to a death threat for one school principal and graffiti sprayed on walls. The schools in Antwerp and nearby Hoboken introduced the ban at the start of the school year last week, arguing that Muslim girls were being pressured to wear headscarves by their families and peers.Angry pupils have staged protests outside the school and one girl filed a complaint with the Belgian Council of State to contest the ban. The court will rule on the matter next week and one of its chief advocates has already advised it to overturn the ban. The advocate’s advice is followed in 90 percent of cases.“The advocate said that such a ban is not lawful, and that only the umbrella organisation of state schools can decide on whether or not to introduce such a measure,” a court spokesman said.The protests with banners reading “No headscarf, no pupils” and “Everybody free except us” have been headline news in Belgium. One of the schools was vandalised and had slogans sprayed on its walls and its director has received a death threat.Neighbouring France passed a law in 2004 banning pupils from wearing conspicuous signs of their religion at school after a decade of bitter debate about Muslim girls wearing headscarves in class. Such a measure would be difficult to introduce across the region of Flanders, where most of the schools are private Catholic institutions. Those that have introduced headscarf bans are “community schools.”UPDATE: School officials announced later on Friday that about one fifth of all schools in Belgium’s Dutch-speaking Flanders region would ban pupils from wearing Muslim headscarves. “This decision promotes the feeling of equality and prevents group formation or segregation on the basis of external symbols of life philosophy,” said a statement from the schools.Here is a Reuters TV video on the story: