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 is not any regular church. A formidable Baroque facade graces the outside, however inside there aren’t 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 baggage 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 continues 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 “trendy 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 accordance to estimates by assist organizations.
Father Alliët practices what he used to preach.
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 floor for the terrorist assaults in Paris in 2015 and in Brussels the next yr. His present housemates come from Morocco, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea and Senegal. In some unspecified time in the future, 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 taking advantage of the system,” he stated, banging his fist on the desk for emphasis. He has declined presents to be part of political events however admits that his vocation is inherently political.
“In the long run, Christ was a political revolutionary as properly,” he stated. “That is what obtained him killed within the first place.”
In a rustic the place the migration subject grew to become so divisive that it triggered the collapse of a authorities, 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 latest two-month starvation 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, a lot 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 aren’t “among the many finest means for doing that.” In 2014, the archbishop of Brussels, André Léonard, wished to relocate Father Alliët to one other church, however deserted the concept after protests from native residents.
“Jesus primarily did social work as properly,” stated Father Alliët, shrugging his shoulders. “At any time when he went into the synagogue, he had issues.” Celebrating Mass, he added, is “not important.”
Not surprisingly, Father Alliët has a robust following amongst immigrants, as properly as within the surrounding space. Ahmed Manar, one of many starvation strikers, who was born and raised in Morocco, stated he heard of the priest nearly 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 achieve 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 grew to become the pastor there in 1986. However as political and social attitudes towards migration in Belgium hardened, the protests grew to become much less profitable. Prior to now, they’d led to main authorities concessions, such as a blanket grant of residency to all of the protesters.
The priest acknowledged that his work has turn out to be extra strenuous in recent times, however that appears not to have tempered his enthusiasm. When he acquired a analysis of most cancers final yr, 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 can also be a devoted biker, although he has often 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 some other place, I’d have been Muslim,” he stated. “God is just too nice to lock him up in a single faith.”
Father Alliët credit his mom for his resilience and sturdy 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. One in every 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 grew to become a priest to assist these in want,” he stated. “We made a compromise, and once I turned 40 I give up and moved to Brussels.”
Belgium is certainly one of Europe’s richest nations, however Brussels is a metropolis of stark contrasts, with 30 p.c of its residents residing under the poverty line. Poverty ranges are even greater amongst these with international roots, a lot of whom dwell close to St. John the Baptist Church.
Father Alliët sees his work partly as an effort at redemption for Belgium’s brutal colonial previous, which it has solely simply begun to tackle. “When Belgium colonized Congo, nobody thought of displaying any paperwork,” he defined. “We simply went anyplace 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 position to date has been primarily symbolic.
There’s dissonance between the teachings of Christ and the perspective of some clergymen, Father Alliët stated. He believes that whereas the number of Pope Francis has helped appropriate the imbalance, loads stays to be performed. “However we’re fortunate,” he joked. “We lastly obtained a pope who’s attempting to be Christian.”
Regardless of the difficulties, the priest stays hopeful in regards to 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 individuals take three steps ahead and two again. “You advance slowly, however you nonetheless transfer forward,” he stated.