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Belgium: Above the law and the Constitution

M

Marc Coty

Laurette Onkelinx is the Belgian Minister of Justice since summer 2003. On 20 July 2005, the national daily paper La Libre Belgique reported on Mrs. Onkelinx’s two-year tenure as minister of justice. The paper only covered Onkelinx’s actions regarding religions.

However, the story on Mrs. Onkelinx's relations with the Muslims is not well known. However, people should be made aware of that story since it is one that shapes the future of a religion in a country as well as the future of that country.

In March 1998, an agreement between the Muslims and the then federal government stipulated that one third of the 68 members of the Muslim General Assembly would be replaced by cooptation five years after the first elections and that general elections would be organized in 2009.

Mr. Kissi Benjelloun, the president of the Unions of Mosques of Belgium (Arab), together with several members of the Islamic Federation of Belgium (Turkish), who were “not satisfied with those agreements”, met in September 2004, behind the back of the then Muslim Executive, with members of Onkelinx’s office to discuss the renewal of the Muslim Executive. The government officials requested that Kissi Benjelloun and his colleagues enter into dialogue with the representative organs of the Muslim religion. Instead of doing so, on 23 February 2004, Mr. Kissi Benjelloun addressed a letter to Minister Onkelinx on behalf of himself and several members of the Islamic Federation of Belgium (Turkish) asking for a meeting with Mrs. Onkelinx. Kissi Benjelloun and three others were received by Mrs. Onkelinx and they told her that the Muslim Community was in favor of general elections.

This contact with a few Muslims became the wish of the majority for Onkelinx, as expressed by her, on 8 April 2004, in a letter to the Muslim Executive. She stated: “It appears from those contacts that the leaders I have consulted are in favor of general elections for the total renewal of the Assembly”.

On 22 April 2004, Onkelinx stated before the Chamber of Representatives while answering a question of Mrs. Clotilde Nyssens: “The other organizations I have met, on their request, are all in favor of a total replacement of the Assembly” and “300,000 Euros from the budget of the Ministry of Justice will be allocated to the elections.” The then Assembly and the Executive perceived that financial promises as a political maneuver intended to buy the decision of the Muslim Community.

Amongst the experts who are assisting Mrs. Onkelinx in the management of her ministry, the specialist she is using in dealing with the Muslims religions is none other than Abbes Guenned,* her former husband, who was salvaged from a Turkish jail, and is now enjoying a high position within the ministry of justice as adviser for multicultural policy, policy of big cities and religion. He is the intermediary between Minister of Justice Onkelinx and the Union of Mosques led by Kissi Benjelloun. So, when the mandate of the Muslim Executive of Belgium came to an end on 31 May 2004, Minister Onkelinx ignored the earlier agreement between the Muslims and the government and enforced her own wishes: the full renewal of the General Assembly as well as of the Executive.

On 17 July 2004, Mrs. Onkelinx forced through a bill in a record time of 4 days, aiming at creating a commission to organize the elections for the organs of the Muslim religion. During the plenairy session of Saturday 17 July 2004, Senator Clotilde Nyssen expressed the concern of some people with the State interference with a religion with the following words: “Why could in our country an existing representative body be put in question from outside, judged on its functioning and replaced by a new body following the different rules than those initially and legally established?”

While Mrs. Onkelinx was forcing through this bill, her trusted man, Kissi Benjelloun seemed to have been actively working on some other aspects of the plan to defeat those Muslims not “cooperating” with Onkelinx. On 16 September 2004, the seat of the Muslim Executive was raided, as well as the private homes of 10 Muslims, for alleged embezzlement. Kissi Benjelloun is said to have been the one who stirred up the authorities and thereby caused the raids.

On 7 March 2005, in the middle of the electoral campaign, Kissi Benjelloun, sent an open letter to the President of the Muslim Executive with information to all the responsible terminals of all Mosques and putting in question the lack of transparency of the financial affairs and other similar insinuations. After nine months of investigation by the authorities, nothing wrong was found and on 23 June 2005 the prosecutor office recommended that the case be closed.

At the 20 March 2005 elections of the new General Assembly only 43,765 people out of a Muslim community of more than 400,000 people actually voted. These elections were boycotted by over 90% of the Muslims as they were disgusted with the way the State – in the person of Laurette Onkelinx – had been interfering with the internal affairs of their religion.

The General Assembly has the duty to name the members of the Muslim Executive whose role is to manage the material aspect of the religion. However, per a recent law, “screening” of the candidates is to be done, which takes time. In the interim, a “temporary commission” is supposed to manage the Muslim affairs.

Is it surprising that Kissi Benjelloun, the man of confidence of Laurette Onkelinx, is a member of the temporary commission established by Minister Onkelinx to name the future members of the Muslim Executive of Belgium?

Per Article 21 of the Constitution, "the State is not allowed to intervene in the nomination or in the installation of the ministers of any religion”. But, this is what Mrs. Onkelinx has been doing and is continuing to do, unhindered and backed up by questionable characters (Abbes Guenned and Kissi Benjelloun) creating discord amongst their own people.

Will our politicians allow the democratic order of this country to be destroyed by a minister who has been showing that she is not working for the best interests of Belgium?

* Abbes Guenned was the subject of an international arrest warrant issued by Morocco in 1996 for drug trafficking and criminal association. In this context he was arrested and imprisoned while in Turkey, at the request of the Superior Court of Turkey. Morocco requested his extradition. Belgium with the help of Marc Uyttendaele (Onkelinx’s current husband) intervened and got Abbes Guenned released from the Turkish jail, avoiding a diplomatic flap.
 
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