September 24, 2021, 10:31 a.m. ET
BRUSSELS – Wherever he goes to the Church of Saint-Jean-Baptiste in Brussels, Reverend Daniel Alliët quickly finds himself surrounded by a crowd, an unusual sight for a Roman Catholic church in largely secular Western Europe.
But St. John’s is not a regular church. An impressive Baroque facade adorns the exterior, but inside there are no benches, votive candles, or even worshipers. 17th-century religious statues are draped with posters calling for social justice, and the marble floor is littered with mattresses and sleeping bags for the migrants sheltering there, who often congregate around the priest as he moves.
For Father Alliët, 77, the heart of Christianity is to help people on the margins of society, and he has devoted much of his life to helping undocumented migrants, mostly Muslims, and the poor in the cities. Although his church is still sanctified, no Mass has been celebrated there since his retirement in 2019. It’s an unorthodox approach, which has sparked tension between him and more conservative members of the Catholic clergy in Belgium.
He calls undocumented migrants “modern slaves” and, in an interview with the church, said their plight reflects the global injustice for which the Western world bears responsibility. There are no less than 200,000 irregular migrants in Belgium, a nation of 10 million, according to the estimates of aid organizations.
Father Alliët practices what he preached.
For 35 years, he has lived in social housing alongside migrants in the Brussels district of Molenbeek, a strongly Muslim district infamous as the stadium for the attacks in Paris in 2015 and in Brussels the following year. Her current roommates come from Morocco, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea and Senegal. At one point, he said, he was the only one in the house not celebrating Ramadan.
Sometimes Father Alliët looks more like a politician than a priest. “Migrants are the victims, and we are taking advantage of the system,” he said, banging his fist on the table to insist. He declined offers of membership to political parties but admits that his vocation is intrinsically political.
“In the end, Christ was also a political revolutionary,” he said. “That’s what got him killed in the first place.”
In a country where the migration issue has become so controversial that it has triggered the fall of a government, the priest’s work has been widely praised but also sharply criticized by opponents of immigration. Right-wing politician Theo Francken describe a recent two month hunger strike by some 250 migrants to church as a “lobby for open borders” and called their supporters “super naïve”.
(The protest, demanding legal status and a clear path to Belgian residency, was suspended in July, but immigrant strikers, many of whom are homeless, remained on church premises.)
The priest’s unorthodox approach has also ruffled feathers in the church hierarchy.
“It is certainly not my approach,” said Reverend Jean Kockerols, Auxiliary Bishop of Brussels in an interview. It is the duty of the Catholic Church to defend the most vulnerable, said Father Kockerols, but actions such as hosting hunger strikers are not “among the best ways to do it”. In 2014, the Archbishop of Brussels, André Léonard, wanted to move Father Alliët to another church, but abandoned the idea after protests from residents.
“Jesus was also mainly doing social work,” said Father Alliët, shrugging his shoulders. “Every time he entered the synagogue he had problems.” Celebrating Mass, he added, is “not essential”.
Not surprisingly, Father Alliët has a strong clientele among immigrants, as well as in the surrounding area. Ahmed Manar, one of the hunger strikers who was born and raised in Morocco, said he heard about the priest almost immediately upon his arrival in Belgium 10 years ago. “He’s like a father to all of us,” said Mr Manar, 53, who has yet to get the residency. “It has nothing to do with religion. It shows his humanity.
It was the fifth undocumented hunger strike in the church since Father Alliët became its pastor in 1986. But as political and social attitudes towards migration in Belgium hardened, the protests became less fruitful. In the past, they had led to important government concessions, such as a general residence allowance to all protesters.
The priest admitted that his work has become more arduous in recent years, but that does not seem to have dampened his enthusiasm. When he was diagnosed with cancer last year, he didn’t stop working, even during chemotherapy. “My mission is what keeps me going,” he said.
Each year, Father Alliët allows himself a leave of absence from his mission for a four-day excursion through the Ardennes, the Belgian mountains. He is also a passionate biker, even if he is regularly struck by a notorious Brussels curse: bicycle thieves. “I have had 16 bikes stolen in the past 35 years,” he said.
He was born into a poor farming family of 10 in a small village in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking region of Belgium, and said he was Catholic purely because of his origin. “If I had been born elsewhere, I would have been a good Muslim,” he said. “God is too great to lock him up in one religion.
Father Alliët attributes his resilience and strong values to his mother. She was 33 when her husband died in an accident, left alone with eight children and pregnant with the ninth. “She taught us that to be human is to help others, not to have a big house,” he said.
The lesson has penetrated. One of her brothers is now a working priest in El Salvador, and a sister has worked in a Christian aid organization in Congo.
After Father Alliët graduated from seminary, his superiors convinced him to accept employment in academia and, later, in the charitable sector. He worked as a professor of philosophy at the University of Louvain and headed the Flemish branch of Caritas, a Roman Catholic aid group.
But he wanted to do more. “I became a priest to help those in need,” he said. “We made a compromise, and when I was 40, I resigned and moved to Brussels.”
Belgium is one of the richest countries in Europe, but Brussels is a city of stark contrasts, with 30 percent of its inhabitants living below the poverty line. Poverty levels are even higher among people of foreign descent, many of whom live near St. John the Baptist Church.
Father Alliët sees his work in part as an effort to redeem Belgium’s brutal colonial past, which he has only just begun to tackle. “When Belgium colonized the Congo, nobody thought of showing documents,” he explained. “We went where we wanted and took what we wanted. “
After Father Alliët’s retirement in 2019, Father Kockerols, the auxiliary bishop, wanted to transform the church into a museum of religion, but the priest resisted. “I told him that’s not how you connect with people,” he said. “I went to see the pyramids in Egypt. It was very impressive, but it didn’t make me a Tutankhamun worshiper.
Eventually, the church authorities backed down. The Archbishop has appointed a successor to Father Alliët, but the role of this priest to date has been mainly symbolic.
There is a dissonance between the teachings of Christ and the attitude of some clergymen, said Father Alliët. He believes that while the selection of Pope Francis has made it possible to correct the imbalance, much remains to be done. “But we’re lucky,” he joked. “We finally have a pope who is trying to be a Christian.”
Despite the difficulties, the priest remains hopeful for the future.
“This work is like the Echternach procession,” he said, referring to a Roman Catholic tradition in neighboring Luxembourg where participants take three steps forward and two back. “You are moving slowly, but you are moving forward nonetheless,” he said.