BRUSSELS — Wherever he goes in St. John the Baptist Church in Brussels, the Rev. Daniel Alliët finds himself rapidly surrounded by a crowd, an uncommon sight for a Roman Catholic church in largely secular Western Europe.
However St. John’s isn’t any normal church. A formidable Baroque facade graces the outside, however inside there are not any pews, votive candles and even worshipers. The Seventeenth-century non secular statues are draped with posters calling for social justice and the marble ground is crowded with mattresses and sleeping luggage for the migrants sheltering there, who usually collect across the priest as he makes his manner round.
To Father Alliët, 77, the core of Christianity helps these on the margins of society, and he has devoted a lot of his life to serving to undocumented migrants, most of them Muslims, and the city poor. Though his church remains to be sanctified, not a single Mass has been celebrated there since he retired in 2019. It’s an unorthodox method, one which has raised tensions between him and extra conservative members of the Roman Catholic clergy in Belgium.
He calls undocumented migrants “fashionable slaves,” and in an interview on the church stated their plight mirrored the worldwide injustice for which the Western world bears duty. There are as many as 200,000 migrants of irregular standing in Belgium, a nation of 10 million, in keeping with estimates by assist organizations.
Father Alliët practices what he used to evangelise.
For the previous 35 years, he has lived in neighborhood housing alongside migrants within the Brussels space of Molenbeek, a strongly Muslim space notorious as the staging ground for the terrorist assaults in Paris in 2015 and in Brussels the following year. His present housemates come from Morocco, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea and Senegal. Sooner or later, he stated, he was the one one in the home not celebrating Ramadan.
At occasions, Father Alliët sounds extra like a politician than a priest. “Migrants are the victims, and we’re cashing in on the system,” he stated, banging his fist on the desk for emphasis. He has declined gives to hitch political events however admits that his vocation is inherently political.
“Ultimately, Christ was a political revolutionary as effectively,” he stated. “That is what obtained him killed within the first place.”
In a rustic the place the migration concern turned so divisive that it triggered the collapse of a government, the priest’s work has received vast reward but in addition been sharply criticized by immigration opponents. A right-wing politician, Theo Francken, described a current two-month hunger strike by some 250 migrants on the church as a “foyer for open borders” and dismissed their supporters as “tremendous naïve.”
(The protest, demanding authorized standing and a transparent pathway to Belgian residency, was suspended in July, however the immigrant strikers, lots of them homeless, remained on the church premises.)
The priest’s unorthodox method has additionally ruffled feathers within the church hierarchy.
“That is definitely not my method,” the Rev. Jean Kockerols, the auxiliary bishop of Brussels stated in an interview. It’s the responsibility of the Catholic Church to defend essentially the most weak, Father Kockerols stated, however actions like internet hosting starvation strikers usually are not “among the many finest means for doing that.” In 2014, the archbishop of Brussels, André Léonard, wished to relocate Father Alliët to a different church, however deserted the thought after protests from native residents.
“Jesus primarily did social work as effectively,” stated Father Alliët, shrugging his shoulders. “Each time he went into the synagogue, he had issues.” Celebrating Mass, he added, is “not important.”
Not surprisingly, Father Alliët has a powerful following amongst immigrants, in addition to within the surrounding space. Ahmed Manar, one of many starvation strikers, who was born and raised in Morocco, stated he heard of the priest virtually instantly upon his arrival in Belgium 10 years in the past. “He is sort of a father to all of us,” stated Mr. Manar, 53, who has but to realize residency. “It has nothing to do with faith. It exhibits his humanity.”
It was the fifth starvation strike by undocumented migrants within the church since Father Alliët turned the pastor there in 1986. However as political and social attitudes towards migration in Belgium hardened, the protests turned much less profitable. Up to now, that they had led to main authorities concessions, corresponding to a blanket grant of residency to all of the protesters.
The priest acknowledged that his work has turn into extra strenuous lately, however that appears to not have tempered his enthusiasm. When he acquired a analysis of most cancers final 12 months, he didn’t cease working, even throughout chemotherapy. “My mission is what retains me going,” he stated.
Yearly, Father Alliët permits himself day off from his mission for a four-day tour by way of the Ardennes, the Belgian mountains. He’s additionally a devoted biker, although he has commonly been struck by a infamous Brussels curse: bike thieves. “I’ve had 16 bikes stolen from me within the final 35 years,” he stated.
He was born right into a poor farming household of 10 in a small village in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking area of Belgium, and stated he was a Catholic solely due to the place he got here from. “If I have been born someplace else, I might have been an excellent Muslim,” he stated. “God is simply too nice to lock him up in a single faith.”
Father Alliët credit his mom for his resilience and robust values. She was 33 when her husband died in an accident, left on her personal with eight kids and pregnant with the ninth. “She taught us that being human is about serving to others, not about having a giant home,” he stated.
The lesson sank in. Certainly one of his brothers is now a priest working in El Salvador, and a sister labored in a Christian assist group in Congo.
After Father Alliët graduated from the seminary, his superiors satisfied him to take a job in academia and, later, within the charity sector. He labored as a philosophy professor at Leuven College and ran the Flanders department of Caritas, a Roman Catholic assist group.
However he wished to do extra. “I turned a priest to assist these in want,” he stated. “We made a compromise, and after I turned 40 I give up and moved to Brussels.”
Belgium is one in all Europe’s richest international locations, however Brussels is a metropolis of stark contrasts, with 30 p.c of its residents dwelling beneath the poverty line. Poverty ranges are even larger amongst these with international roots, lots of whom dwell close to St. John the Baptist Church.
Father Alliët sees his work partially as an effort at redemption for Belgium’s brutal colonial previous, which it has only just begun to address. “When Belgium colonized Congo, nobody thought of displaying any paperwork,” he defined. “We simply went wherever we wished and took no matter we felt like.”
After Father Alliët retired in 2019, Father Kockerols, the auxiliary bishop, wished to rework the church right into a museum of faith, however the priest resisted. “I advised him that this isn’t the way you join with folks,” he stated. “I went to see the pyramids in Egypt. It was very spectacular, however that didn’t flip me right into a worshiper of Tutankhamen.”
Ultimately, the church authorities backed down. The archbishop named a successor to Father Alliët, however that priest’s function to this point has been primarily symbolic.
There’s dissonance between the teachings of Christ and the angle of some clergymen, Father Alliët stated. He believes that whereas the choice of Pope Francis has helped right the imbalance, lots stays to be finished. “However we’re fortunate,” he joked. “We lastly obtained a pope who’s making an attempt to be Christian.”
Regardless of the difficulties, the priest stays hopeful concerning the future.
“This work is just like the procession of Echternach,” he stated, referring to a Roman Catholic custom from close by Luxembourg the place the members take three steps ahead and two again. “You advance slowly, however you however transfer forward,” he stated.