By Alissa de Carbonnel
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Belgium is taking back control of the Grand Mosque of Brussels by terminating Saudi Arabia’s lease of the building with immediate effect over concerns it promotes radicalism, the government said on Friday.
The announcement 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, as reported by Reuters in February.
Concerns over Brussels’ biggest mosque, located near the European Union’s headquarters, surfaced after Islamist militants who plotted their assault in Brussels killed 130 people in Paris in 2015, and 32 in the Belgian capital in 2016.
Friday’s decision breaks Saudi Arabia’s unusual 99-year, rent free use of the building, the government said.
“The concession will be terminated immediately … in order to put an end to foreign interference in the way Islam is taught in Belgium,” the Belgian government said in a statement.
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’s quick acceptance of Brussels’ request to relinquish the lease reflects a new readiness by the kingdom to promote a more moderate form of Islam – one of the more ambitious promises made by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman under plans to transform Saudi Arabia and reduce its reliance on oil.
The handover of the mosque 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 – a familiar refrain across Europe following recent Islamic State attacks.
“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,” Geens said.
In what he described as a way to promote more “diversity and transparency” within the mosque’s Muslim community, he said it should train imams and display a cultural exhibit on “the achievements of the Muslim civilisation”.
Belgian security sources have told Reuters that the Muslim Executive of Belgium is close to the Moroccan government, with which Belgium has strong intelligence ties.
(Reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel @AdeCar; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)