BRUSSELS — Wherever he goes in St. John the Baptist Church in Brussels, the Rev. Daniel Alliët finds himself shortly surrounded by a crowd, an uncommon sight for a Roman Catholic church in largely secular Western Europe.
However St. John’s is not any common 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 baggage for the migrants sheltering there, who typically 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 continues to be sanctified, not a single Mass has been celebrated there since he retired in 2019. It’s an unorthodox strategy, 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 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, in line with estimates by support 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 because 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 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 gives to affix political events however admits that his vocation is inherently political.
“Ultimately, Christ was a political revolutionary as nicely,” he mentioned. “That is what obtained him killed within the first place.”
In a rustic the place the migration situation turned so divisive that it triggered the collapse of a authorities, 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 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, lots of them homeless, remained on the church premises.)
The priest’s unorthodox strategy has additionally ruffled feathers within the church hierarchy.
“That is definitely not my strategy,” 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 susceptible, 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 thought after protests from native residents.
“Jesus primarily did social work as nicely,” mentioned 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, 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 virtually 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 reveals 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. Previously, that they had led to main authorities concessions, comparable 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 obtained a analysis of most cancers final yr, he didn’t cease working, even throughout chemotherapy. “My mission is what retains me going,” he mentioned.
Yearly, Father Alliët permits himself time 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 frequently 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 have been born someplace else, I’d 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 an enormous 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 support 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 support group.
However he needed to do extra. “I turned 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 among Europe’s richest international locations, however Brussels is a metropolis of stark contrasts, with 30 % of its residents residing under the poverty line. Poverty ranges are even larger amongst these with international roots, lots 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 solely simply begun to handle. “When Belgium colonized Congo, nobody thought of exhibiting any paperwork,” he defined. “We simply went anyplace 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 instructed him that this isn’t the way you join with individuals,” 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 position up to now has been primarily symbolic.
There’s dissonance between the teachings of Christ and the angle of some clergymen, Father Alliët mentioned. He believes that whereas the collection of Pope Francis has helped right the imbalance, rather a lot 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 members take three steps ahead and two again. “You advance slowly, however you however transfer forward,” he mentioned.