Excerpt:

Like so many other pieces in the European mosaic, Belgium has an idiosyncratic relationship with faith. It is both historically devout and heavily secular in its present-day practices. Its ancient cities are cradles of Christian art and learning, and Catholicism is in many ways the country's raison d'etre. When it was created in 1830, the kingdom offered a political home to Catholic Dutch-speakers who preferred to unite with French-speaking co-religionists than with Protestants with whom they had a common tongue.  Faith had trumped language. But as Christianity's role has waned, so too has Belgium's ability to hold together the two linguistic camps. And a new creed, Islam, is gaining importance all the while.

The royal family, a national linchpin, is devoutly Catholic. In 1990, King Baudouin stepped aside for a day rather than sign a bill legalising abortion. But in 2014, his successor King Philippe disappointed conservative Catholics by signing an exceptionally liberal euthanasia law, extending the practice to terminally ill children.

The easy passage of that law reflected the political strength of non-religious ethical systems. But in contrast with secular France, a lot of religion is taught in Belgian schools; children are generally instructed in the faith of their heritage, be it Christian, Jewish or, in steadily increasing numbers, Muslim. In Brussels, about half the children in state schools opt for classes in Islam, although this figure excludes the large share of youngsters who attend private, mostly Catholic schools.


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