The Antwerp alderman of public worship, Philip Heylen (Christian Democrats) has an ambitious plan to do something about the profusion of half-empty churches in his city. Some of the about 80 churches he wants to demolish or use for other purposes. Heylen also sees an opportunity for Muslims to take over barely used church buildings.
Vlaams Belang reacted with shock to the plans. According to the party there seems to be an auction war in Antwerp between teh Christian Democrats and Socialists on who could bring in the largest group of Muslim voters.
The party promises the necessary actions and campaigns if the alderman pushes through his plans. Vlaams Belang does think there should be a solution for the high maintenance costs of the Catholic churches in the city.
Source: HLN (Dutch)
Heylen says there are are too many churches in the city. In the mid-19th century, the Roman Catholic Church built many churches, and the city now has about 80.
However, in the last decade the number of church visitors has declined sharply. Some of the churches have only one weekly service, which only attracts about 20 people. The churches can't handle the costs and turn to the city. Heylen says that the city council deals with such requests in every meeting, but that it's not possible to invest and restore all the churches.
Shutting down the churches is not easy, and there are various criteria to consider, such as how many other churches are in the area, and how much does the church contribute to its community.
Heylen wants to cautiously start cutting back on the churches, through discussion with the parishes and the church administrations. In Ghent one church was converted into a lingerie shop, which was not appreciated by the diocese. Heylen says it's preferable to demolish churches than to turn them into something which is contradictory to the church function, and he doesn't want to make needless provocations.
Therefore, he's considering keeping the churches with a religious role. There are many Antwerp mosques which are currently in backrooms or garages. Heylen says there's no reason not to remove all Christian symbols and place it at the disposal of Muslims. For Jews it's an unthinkable idea, but Antwerp Muslims have made it clear to him that they would have less problems with it. He would have to convince the Catholic church, who have not rejected the idea, but are concerned about the affiliation of the Muslims who will occupy the unused churches.
Heylen says that several parishes already share the church with other faith communities, such as the Assyrian church and the Russian Orthodox church. Of course there are less differences between Catholics and Orthodox than between Catholics and Muslims, but he thinks they can put their reservations aside. He's not asking for every church to be converted into a mosque.
Converting churches into something else completely is another option, but the possibilities are limited. Once church now houses a bookstore. Another houses a music center, but that is a very expensive project.
A workgroup will start making an inventory of the churches, and in the fall they intend to start speaking with the diocese and the parishes, church by church.
Source: De Morgen (Dutch)
See also: Antwerp: Less, bigger mosques, Antwerp: Converts to open mosque