Belgian Cardinal Removes Flemish Priest

Belgium's perennial language dispute got a new twist Monday after a Flemish priest was removed from his parish for banning French-speakers from celebrating Mass in his church.

Father Jos Verstraeten celebrated his last Mass at the St. Peter's church in Wezembeek-Oppem outside Brussels on Sunday at a service attended by flag-waving Flemish nationalists who backed his stance against French-speakers.

In an unusual move, the priest led the congregation in singing "The Flemish Lion," a rousing nationalist anthem.

The priest was moved to another parish by Belgium's top Roman Catholic churchman, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, after he shut his church doors to local Francophones who had held a weekly service there.

Verstraeten was also accused of promoting Flemish nationalist ideas in a church newsletter.

The large French-speaking communities in Wezembeek-Oppem and five other suburban towns around Brussels have special rights to use their language, although the towns lie in the Dutch-speaking Flanders region.

Flemish nationalists have long contested such concessions to the Francophones.

Although disputes between Belgium's 6 million Dutch-speaking Flemings and 4 million French-speakers still frequently rise to the surface, relations between the two groups have improved since linguistic tensions caused the collapse of several Belgian governments in the 1980s.

French-speaking Catholics in Wezembeek-Oppem claimed they had been forced to hold services in cafes and private properties since Verstraeten banned them from the church in July.

Verstraeten's dismissal was front page news in Belgian newspapers Monday.

"God cannot be bilingual" headlined the French-language daily Le Soir.

The Dutch-language De Morgen focused on criticism of the cardinal's decision by a leading Flemish conservative politician Stefaan De Clerck. It quoted him as saying Danneels should not have "risen to the bait of Francophone harping."