Scientology in Belgium
Scientology has operated in Belgium since 1972, but the organization has encountered difficulties there in recent years.
Status of Scientology in Belgium
Belgium only officially recognizes six religions: Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Anglicanism, the Orthodox Church, Judaism and Islam (recently also Buddhism)  and has denied Scientology's request to be included.
Scientology opened an international office in 2003 near the European Union headquarters to lobby for recognition as an official religious group.
2007 trial proposal
The Belgian government denied Scientology the status of religion in 1997, and began investigating its practices and finances after ex-Scientologists said they had been subjected to intimidation and extortion. Concluding the ten-year investigation, on September 4, 2007, a Belgian prosecutor recommended that 12 persons associated with Scientology and two legal entities – the Belgian Church of Scientology and Scientology's Office of Human Rights – should be prosecuted on counts of extortion, fraud, organized crime, obstruction of medical practice, illegal medical practice, invasion of privacy, conspiracy and commercial infractions like abusive contractual clauses. An administrative court would decide if the case would go ahead and charges would be pressed. The court's decision was expected to be announced within a few months.
U.S. State Department response
In response to the proposed trial, the U.S. State Department said that if Belgian authorities "have evidence that individuals violated Belgian law, they should take appropriate legal steps consistent with Belgium’s international obligations to protect freedom of thought, conscience and religion"; however, the State Department would "oppose any effort to stigmatize an entire group based solely upon religious beliefs and would be concerned over infringement of any individual’s rights because of religious affiliation."
Church of Scientology response
The Associated Press reported an official statement released by the Church of Scientology on September 4, 2007:
"For the last 10 years, the prosecutor has been using the media, trying to damage the reputation of the Church of Scientology and not being able to put a case in court," Scientology said. "As a consequence, this created a climate of intolerance and discrimination" in Belgium.
The Church added that the prosecutor's recommendations suggested Scientology was guilty even before a court could hear the charges, making it "difficult for the Church of Scientology to recover and properly defend (itself) before the court."
In October 2015 a criminal trial started against twelve leaders of Scientology in Belgium. Charges against them were bribery, extortion, fraud, violation of the privacy and unlicensed practicing of medicine.
On March 2016, the Church of Scientology was acquitted of all charges, and demands to close its Belgian branch and European headquarters were dismissed. The presiding judge, Yves Regimont, cited prejudice in the investigators and said that the church had been “unfairly hounded for years by Belgian authorities,” according to a report by ABC. “The entire proceedings are declared inadmissible for a serious and irremediable breach of the right to a fair trial. The defendants were prosecuted primarily because they were Scientologists,” the judge said.
On April 2016, the decision become “definitive” due to the Belgian prosecutors’ failure to appeal, said Pascal Vanderveeren, the lawyer for the church in Belgium, to a press conference. “It was important to point out that the ruling for a week is final. The prosecution had thirty days to appeal and also had the prosecutor ten days following notification (the ruling) to appeal. We note that none of them objected to this statement," said Vanderveeren. Eric Roux, Church of Scientology Belgium spokesman stated, “This is a victory for the freedom of religion.” The Church of Scientology also announced that they are taking into consideration attempting to acquire compensation from the Belgian State for damages incurred. The final ruling effectively ends the 18-year-old legal proceedings against the church in Belgium.
On September 2016, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe published a presentation by the Church of Scientology regarding the acquittal. It stated that after an eighteen-year investigation, the evidence was closely scrutinized and evaluated. They cited that the prosecutor had been “prejudiced” against the church and had a “total lack of objectivity.” According to the document, the presumption of guilt of the defendants just by simply associating with Scientology is an “egregious violation of defendants’ rights.” Charges included fraud, extortion, running a criminal enterprise, violating privacy and the illegal practice of medicine. The charges were found “contrary and contradictory” and lacked evidence. The church declared in the document that the acquittal was a “landmark decision protecting religious freedom and freedom of conscience.”
- "Belgium Clamps Down on Scientology Church - The Brussels Journal". The Brussels Journal. Retrieved 4 February 2016.
- Planchar, Roland (July 2005). "Un impôt et deux religions de plus?". La Libre Belgique (in French). Retrieved 2006-07-23.
- Constant Brand, "Scientology Faces Criminal Charges", Associated Press/Boston Globe.
- "Church of Scientology Faces Criminal Charges in Belgium". Fox News. 2007-09-04.
- Planchar, Roland (2007-09-04). "La Scientologie plus près de son procès" (in French). La Libre Belgique. Retrieved 2007-09-04.
- "Belgium: Prosecutor Recommends Legal Action Against Scientology". United States Department of State. Archived from the original on 6 March 2008. Retrieved 4 February 2016.
- "Scientology-proces na 18 jaar eindelijk van start in Brussel". Het Laatste Nieuws. Retrieved 4 February 2016.
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