By Devin Watkins
It will be a Christmas without large public Masses in Belgium this year.
The Council of State, Belgium’s highest administrative court, confirmed the ban on Tuesday in response to a petition from a group of Catholic priests.
The group had appealed against a ministerial order issued on 11 December, which limited public gatherings for worship to 15 participants.
‘Not contrary to religious freedom’
The court rejected the request on the grounds that the restrictions are necessary “to preserve public health in the context of the coronavirus pandemic.”
“These requests were directed against the ministerial order of December 11, 2020, which once again authorized the collective exercise of worship in buildings, but limited it to a maximum of 15 people,” reads the ruling. “In particular, this regulation is not contrary to the freedom of religion, the principle of equality, or the principle of proportionality.”
The spokesman of the Belgian Bishops’ Conference, Fr. Tommy Scholtes, expressed regret at the decision, speaking to RTBF, a Belgian broadcaster.
He said the Council of State “did not accept the arguments of these priests who were trying to save Christmas.”
The group of priests who brought the appeal called the ruling “a serious development in the protection of individual rights, which every citizen of this country should be concerned about.”
They added that the Council of State has given the government “a wide margin of discretion in assessing whether or not to severely restrict freedom of worship.”
Ahead of the 11 December order that restricted access to public worship, Belgian Catholics had hoped for more flexibility on congregation sizes.
Many had anticipated measures that took into account the size of the place of worship, as Italy and France had done.
One of those who lodged the appeal is the Rector of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Koekelberg, Father Marc Leroy.
He complained that only 15 people are allowed to enter his church, which is the largest in Belgium and measures over 10,000 square meters.
In normal times, the church welcomes around 700 of the faithful.
“I don’t think the politicians really know what is going on at the moment,” he lamented.