2021-10-01 20:46:52 He Sees Migrants as ‘Modern Slaves,’ and Has Devoted His Life to Helping Them

He Sees Migrants as ‘Modern Slaves,’ and Has Devoted His Life to Helping Them

BRUSSELS — The Rev. Daniel Allit is quickly surrounded by a crowd wherever he goes in St. John the Baptist Church in Brussels, an unusual sight for a Roman Catholic church in largely secular Western Europe.

However, St. John’s is not your typical church. The exterior features an impressive Baroque facade, but there are no pews, votive candles, or worshipers inside. The 17th-century religious statues are draped with posters advocating for social justice, and the marble floor is crammed with mattresses and sleeping bags for the migrants who are sheltering there, who frequently gather around the priest as he walks around.

Father Allit, 77, believes that helping those on the margins of society is at the heart of Christianity, and he has devoted much of his life to assisting undocumented migrants, the majority of whom are Muslims, and the urban poor. Despite the fact that his church is still sanctified, no Mass has been held there since he retired in 2019. It is an unconventional approach that has sparked conflict between him and more conservative members of Belgium’s Roman Catholic clergy.

He refers to undocumented migrants as “modern slaves,” and said in an interview at the church that their plight reflected the global injustice for which the Western world is responsible. According to aid organizations, there are up to 200,000 irregular migrants in Belgium, a country of ten million people.

Father Allit puts into practice what he preaches.

For the past 35 years, he has lived in community housing alongside migrants in the Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek, a predominantly Muslim neighborhood best known as the staging ground for the terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015 and Brussels the following year. His current occupants are from Morocco, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guinea, and Senegal. He claimed that at one point he was the only one in the house who did not observe Ramadan.

Father Allit sounds more like a politician than a priest at times. “Migrants are the victims, and we profit from the system,” he said emphatically, banging his fist on the table. He has turned down offers to join political parties, but he admits that his job is inherently political.

“In the end, Christ was also a political revolutionary,” he explained. “This is what led to his death in the first place.”

In a country where immigration has become so divisive that it has led to the collapse of a government, the priest’s work has received widespread acclaim but has also been harshly criticized by immigration opponents. Theo Francken, a right-wing politician, called a recent two-month hunger strike by 250 migrants at the church a “lobby for open borders” and dismissed their supporters as “super naive.”

(The protest, which was calling for legal status and a clear path to Belgian residency, was called off in July, but the immigrant strikers, many of whom were homeless, remained on the church grounds.)

The priest’s unconventional approach has also ruffled the church hierarchy’s feathers.

In an interview, the Rev. Jean Kockerols, the auxiliary bishop of Brussels, stated, “This is certainly not my approach.” According to Father Kockerols, it is the Catholic Church’s duty to defend the most vulnerable, but actions such as hosting hunger strikers are not “among the best means for doing that.” The archbishop of Brussels, André Léonard, wanted to relocate Father Alliet to another church in 2014, but backed down after local residents protested.

“Jesus did a lot of social work,” Father Allit said, shrugging his shoulders. “He had problems every time he went to the synagogue.” He went on to say that attending Mass is “not necessary.”

Not surprisingly, Father Allit has a sizable following among immigrants as well as in the surrounding community. One of the hunger strikers, Ahmed Manar, who was born and raised in Morocco, said he learned about the priest almost immediately after arriving in Belgium ten years ago. “He is like a father to all of us,” Mr. Manar, 53, who has yet to be granted residency, said. “It has absolutely nothing to do with religion. It demonstrates his humanity.”

It was the church’s fifth hunger strike by undocumented migrants since Father Allit became pastor in 1986. However, as political and social attitudes toward migration in Belgium became more hardened, the protests became less effective. Previously, they had resulted in significant government concessions, such as a blanket grant of residency to all protesters.

The priest acknowledged that his work had become more difficult in recent years, but this did not seem to dampen his enthusiasm. When he was diagnosed with cancer last year, he did not stop working, even while undergoing chemotherapy. “What keeps me going is my mission,” he said.

Every year, Father Allit takes a four-day break from his mission to hike through the Ardennes, Belgium’s mountains. He is also an avid biker, though he has been plagued by a notorious Brussels curse: bike thieves. “In the last 35 years, I’ve had 16 bikes stolen from me,” he said.

He was born into a poor farming family of ten in a small village in Flanders, Belgium’s Dutch-speaking region, and claimed to be a Catholic solely because of his upbringing. “I would have been a good Muslim if I had been born somewhere else,” he said. “God is too great to be confined to a single religion.”

Father Allit attributes his resilience and strong values to his mother. She was 33 when her husband died in an accident, leaving her alone with eight children and a ninth on the way. “She taught us that being a human is about helping others, not having a big house,” he explained.

The lesson had sunk in. One of his brothers is now a priest in El Salvador, and one of his sisters worked in a Christian aid organization in Congo.

After graduating from the seminary, Father Allit was persuaded to work in academia and, later, in the charity sector by his superiors. He was a philosophy professor at Leuven University and the director of the Flanders branch of Caritas, a Roman Catholic aid organization.

He, on the other hand, desired to do more. “I became a priest to assist those in need,” he explained. “We reached an agreement, and when I turned 40, I resigned and relocated to Brussels.”

Belgium is one of the wealthiest countries in Europe, but Brussels is a city of stark contrasts, with 30% of its residents living in poverty. Poverty is even worse among those with foreign ancestors, many of whom live near St. John the Baptist Church.

Father Allit sees his work as part of a larger effort to atone for Belgium’s brutal colonial past, which it has only recently begun to address. “No one thought about showing any documents when Belgium colonized Congo,” he explained. “We just went wherever we wanted and took whatever we wanted.”

After Father Allit retired in 2019, the auxiliary bishop, Father Kockerols, wanted to turn the church into a religious museum, but the priest refused. “I told him that this is not the way to connect with people,” he explained. “I went to Egypt to see the pyramids. It was impressive, but it did not convert me into a Tutankhamen devotee.”

Eventually, the church authorities relented. The archbishop appointed a successor to Father Allit, but that priest’s role has been largely symbolic to date.

According to Father Allit, there is a dissonance between Christ’s teachings and the attitudes of some clergymen. He believes that, while the election of Pope Francis has helped to correct the imbalance, there is still much work to be done. “But we’re lucky,” he remarked. “At long last, we have a pope who is attempting to be Christian.”

Despite his difficulties, the priest is optimistic about the future.

“This work is like the Echternach procession,” he said, referring to a nearby Luxembourg Roman Catholic tradition in which participants take three steps forward and two back. “You move slowly, but you move forward,” he explained.

Source link

Other News

Subscribe to our World NEWS Letter

He Sees Migrants as ‘Modern Slaves,’ and Has Devoted His Life to Helping Them