The Grand Mosque of Brussels, leased rent-free by Belgium to Saudi Arabia since 1969, has been taken back by the government in a move aimed at combating radicalism.
According to this report, the 99-year lease was been terminated last week “with immediate effect”.
The announcement last Friday is Belgium’s first official confirmation of the move which comes after months of behind the scenes diplomacy to prevent any fall-out with Saudi Arabia. A government statement said:
The concession will be terminated immediately … in order to put an end to foreign interference in the way Islam is taught in Belgium.
Belgium leased the Grand Mosque to Riyadh in 1969, giving Saudi-backed imams access to a growing Muslim immigrant community, mostly from Morocco and Turkey, in return for cheaper oil for its industry.
It has been run by the Mecca-based Muslim World League (MWL), a missionary society mainly funded by Saudi Arabia. The MWL denies it espouses violence.
Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon tweeted of Friday’s announcement that:
In this way, we are tackling Salafist, violent extremist influences.
Riyadh has been quick to accept the takeover, which coincides with a new Saudi initiative, not publicly announced but described to Reuters by Western officials, to end support for mosques and religious schools abroad blamed for spreading radical ideas.
Justice Minister Koen Geens said the sprawling complex will instead house the offices of the Muslim Executive of Belgium, an official body which represents Muslim communities across the country.
The mosque will have to register as a place of worship, he said.
Geens and other Belgian leaders couched the move as a way to promote a “European Islam” better aligned with their values. Geens said:
From now on, the mosque will have to establish a lasting relation with the Belgian authorities, while respecting the laws and the traditions of our country, which convey a tolerant vision of Islam.
Controversy over the Brussels mosque has simmered for several years, according to this report. In 2015, the Belgian government advised Saudi ambassador Abdullah bin Yahya Almoa’limi that it had problems with the mosque’s director, Khalid Alabri, who was also on the embassy staff.
A worshipper told Belgian television and radio station RTBF.
His sermons were Salafist, anti-Israel and anti-West. The guiding principle was the primacy of Salafism above all else.
Alabri was quietly removed from his post.
A Belgian parliamentary inquiry into the attack on Brussels’ international Zaventem airport and a metro station in the city in which 32 people were killed in 2016, advised the government to cancel the mosque contract on the grounds that Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism could contribute to extremism.