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 are not any pews, votive candles and even worshipers. The Seventeenth-century spiritual statues are draped with posters calling for social justice and the marble flooring is crowded with mattresses and sleeping baggage for the migrants sheltering there, who usually collect across the priest as he makes his approach 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 “trendy slaves,” and in an interview on the church mentioned their plight mirrored the worldwide injustice for which the Western world bears accountability. There are as many as 200,000 migrants of irregular standing in Belgium, a nation of 10 million, based on estimates by help organizations.
Father Alliët practices what he used to evangelise.
For the previous 35 years, he has lived in group 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. In some unspecified time in the future, he mentioned, 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 making the most of the system,” he mentioned, banging his fist on the desk for emphasis. He has declined provides to hitch political events however admits that his vocation is inherently political.
“Ultimately, Christ was a political revolutionary as effectively,” he mentioned. “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 government, the priest’s work has received large reward but additionally been sharply criticized by immigration opponents. A right-wing politician, Theo Francken, described a latest 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, 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 actually not my method,” the Rev. Jean Kockerols, the auxiliary bishop of Brussels mentioned in an interview. It’s the obligation of the Catholic Church to defend essentially the most weak, Father Kockerols mentioned, however actions like internet hosting starvation strikers should not “among the many finest means for doing that.” In 2014, the archbishop of Brussels, André Léonard, needed to relocate Father Alliët to a different church, however deserted the concept after protests from native residents.
“Jesus primarily did social work as effectively,” mentioned 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 robust following amongst immigrants, in addition to within the surrounding space. Ahmed Manar, one of many starvation strikers, who was born and raised in Morocco, mentioned 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,” mentioned 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 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. Previously, that they had led to main authorities concessions, akin to a blanket grant of residency to all of the protesters.
The priest acknowledged that his work has turn into extra strenuous in recent times, however that appears to not have tempered his enthusiasm. When he acquired a prognosis of most cancers final 12 months, he didn’t cease working, even throughout chemotherapy. “My mission is what retains me going,” he mentioned.
Yearly, Father Alliët permits himself day without work 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 repeatedly been struck by a infamous Brussels curse: bike thieves. “I’ve had 16 bikes stolen from me within the final 35 years,” he mentioned.
He was born right into a poor farming household of 10 in a small village in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking area of Belgium, and mentioned he was a Catholic solely due to the place he got here from. “If I had been born someplace else, I might have been a great Muslim,” he mentioned. “God is just too nice to lock him up in a single faith.”
Father Alliët credit his mom for his resilience and powerful values. She was 33 when her husband died in an accident, left on her personal with eight youngsters and pregnant with the ninth. “She taught us that being human is about serving to others, not about having a giant home,” he mentioned.
The lesson sank in. One in all his brothers is now a priest working in El Salvador, and a sister labored in a Christian help 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 help group.
However he needed to do extra. “I grew to become a priest to assist these in want,” he mentioned. “We made a compromise, and after I turned 40 I stop and moved to Brussels.”
Belgium is one in all Europe’s richest nations, however Brussels is a metropolis of stark contrasts, with 30 % of its residents dwelling under the poverty line. Poverty ranges are even increased amongst these with international roots, a lot of whom stay 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 considered displaying any paperwork,” he defined. “We simply went wherever we needed and took no matter we felt like.”
After Father Alliët retired in 2019, Father Kockerols, the auxiliary bishop, needed 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 mentioned. “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 thus far has been primarily symbolic.
There’s dissonance between the teachings of Christ and the perspective of some clergymen, Father Alliët mentioned. He believes that whereas the collection of Pope Francis has helped appropriate the imbalance, quite a bit stays to be finished. “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 concerning the future.
“This work is just like the procession of Echternach,” he mentioned, 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 however transfer forward,” he mentioned.