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+ Overview

Belgium's 364,000 Muslims outnumber its Protestants and Greek and Russian Orthodox in this largely Roman Catholic country with a total population of 10.3 million. Many Muslims immigrated in the 1960s and 1970s when Belgium had migration agreements with Morocco and Turkey.

There are 380 mosques in Belgium and Islam is among the six religions officially recognized by the government, entitling it to, among other things, subsidies; Belgian Muslims received 3.5 percent of the $523 million given out in 2000. However, money that is traditionally earmarked for teachers, religious leaders, schools, and places of worship has been tied up, in part because the Muslim Executive Council, the body designated to mediate such issues, has had a rocky relationship with the government, and has been accused in one Belgian intelligence committee's report of having fundamentalist ties. The council has denounced the charge.

The aftermath of 9/11 has intensified hostility towards Muslims in Belgium. Incidents range from verbal abuse to the murder in Antwerp of a Moroccan teacher in November 2002. The European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance reports anti-Muslim political discussion and propaganda promotes discrimination as Muslims seek employment and housing. The commission said Muslims have been singled out by police, although in some cases, the attention is justified: a rash of anti-Semitic violence in recent years has been attributed to Muslims, particularly students.

Although Belgium's high court ruled that a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf could not be denied an identification card, conservatives in Belgium's parliament have introduced a ban on the wearing of headscarves in schools and public offices. In December 2004, the Belgian government said it was considering a ban on the wearing of any conspicuous religious symbols for civil servants.

+ Major Terrorist Plots and Arrests

+ On Sept. 30, 2003, a Belgian court convicted 18 men for involvement in a terror cell. Nizar Trabelsi, a Tunisian former professional soccer player, was sentenced to 10 years for plotting a suicide attack against the NATO air base at Kleine Brogel, where 100 U.S. military personnel work and which is believed to store nuclear weapons. Tarek Maaroufi, also Tunisian, was sentenced to six years in prison for his role in a Brussels-based fake passport ring that supplied fake Belgian passports to the men who assassinated former Northern Alliance commander Ahmed Shah Massoud two days before the Sept. 11 attacks.

+ In the week after the March 11, 2004 attacks in Madrid, Belgian police arrested four members of the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, which was linked to the Madrid bombings and the May 2003 Casablanca bombings.

+ On June 8, 2004, 15 people tied to Rabei Osman El Sayed Ahmed, a main suspect in the Madrid bombings, were arrested in Antwerp and Brussels. A Belgian law enforcement official told the Los Angeles Times that the arrested men had been in contact with Ahmed, whom Italian police had captured on wiretaps discussing future attacks, and that they may have been headed for missions in Iraq.

+ In October 2004, a Belgian court sentenced eight Islamic militants to prison terms of up to 5 years for plotting attacks and for links to Al Qaeda. According to prosecutors, three months before the Sept. 11 attacks, one of the men, Saber Mohammed, an Iraqi Kurd, received multiple phone calls from senior Al Qaeda figure Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Also convicted was Tarek Maaroufi, who had been convicted in September 2003 of supplying the fake passports used in the assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud.

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posted jan. 25, 2005

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