For three weeks, Hare Krishna (1) has been in the eye of the media cyclone triggered by a small local conflict with the neighbours of their centre located in a tourist area of the French-speaking part of Belgium. Through dialogue with the local authorities and population, the problem is however being settled.
The Hare Krishna community
The Hare Krishna community occupies a castle in Petite-Somme, a village situated on a 47 hectare plot of land in a woody region (the Ardennes) much frequented by Dutch and Flemish tourists. In the early 1980s, the Hare Krishna bought the castle (about 430,000 Euros) which at that time was in a very poor state. Since then, they have been renovating it and have added a cafeteria, a vegetarian restaurant, a shop, a bakery and other residential buildings in the local architectural style (stones) for the 35-40 followers (single) who are long-standing residents. About the same number of followers (usually married couples) live in the neighbourhood. Two thirds of the castle residents are Dutch-speaking (from the Flanders or the Netherlands), 25% come from France and 15% are from Central and East European countries.
Their castle is open to the public and is visited every year by about 35,000 tourists (80-90% Flemish and Dutch), which caused some disturbance to the local residents. Inside, there is much more tourist and religious documentation in Dutch than in French. Because of the intense anti-sect campaigns in the French-speaking media, French-speaking tourist agencies are reluctant to publicize the tourist activities organized at the Hare Krishna castle. The tourism activities provide for about 75% of the budget of the community.
The starting point of the local conflict was an application for a building permit for a 400 m² library to be built on the other side of the road on a small plot of land they had bought. The building was meant to accommodate thousands of religious books, reading rooms, meeting rooms, five classrooms, offices and 25 student’s flats. In conformity with the normal rules, a public inquiry procedure was opened by the local municipal authorities. In that framework, the closest neighbours of the Hare Krishna community expressed their opposition to the project claiming that their daily life would be disturbed by an increase in visitors and road traffic. In their first statement, they said that they were not prejudiced against that eastern religion but they wanted to go on living in a quiet village. Very soon after the first alarming press article, the Hare Krishna leaders attended a meeting held by some local residents to explain their project and said they wanted to remain on good terms with them. They promised to choose another site on their own property, to build their own parking and their own connection to another major road. Despite the good will on both sides and on the side of the local authorities, this local problem became a national (and even international) issue in the media.
The sociological structure of the village
Nothing has been said about the sociological profile of the village. Human Rights Without Frontiers visited the area on 18 January and interviewed a number of people. In Petite-Somme, within one-kilometre radius around the Hare Krishna castle, there are about 120 houses. A first evaluation seems to indicate that 25% of them are occupied by natives while most of them were bought or built by non-Hare Krishna Flemish and Dutch people who use them as a second residence for the weekend and the holidays. When a petition against the building project was organized, "outsiders" were not approached but it was mainly signed by native residents and non-residents from other towns and villages.
The media coverage
The headlines of the written press were very suggestive although the content was less alarming: "Hare Krishna knocks out Petite-Somme" (2), "Local residents are afraid of a Krishna library", "The invaders: Near Durbuy (3), the villagers are alarmed by the building projects of the followers of the Hare Krishna sect", "Radhadesh proposes solutions", "Petite-Somme: Meeting between the population and the Krishna followers", "Krishna in the Namurois (4): the sect already occupies a castle and goes on expanding", "We are surrounded by Hare Krishnas", "Durbuy fears expansion projects of a sect", "We are victims of the French sect-hunt", "Septon (5) afraid of the Krishna projects - Dangerous or just different? - A smiling dictatorship", "A village in the grip of Krishnas? - The application is withdrawn".
There were also regular reports on all the Belgian TV channels and on the radio.
The sources of information of journalists were mainly the Hare Krishna leaders, spokespeople of some French-speaking anti-sect movements (6) - ADIF (Association for the Defence of Individuals and Families) and AVCS (Aid to the Victims of Sectarian Behaviours) - some local residents and the Information and Advice Centre on Harmful Sectarian Organizations. No Belgian academic was interviewed although it is known that Dr. Winand M. Callewaert, Professor at the Department of Asian Studies at the Catholic University of Leuven (KUL) (7), is a specialist on Hinduism.
In an interview with the main French-speaking Catholic newspaper "La Libre Belgique" (9 January), the director of the Centre said " No recent data allow us to draw negative conclusions and there is nothing relevant as far as sectarian behaviours are concerned". On the same day, at 6.45 p.m., the vice-president of the Centre, Mr Henri de Cordes (8), declared on the main French-speaking TV channel RTBF "The practice of repeating mantras is known in psychology as a technique that allows access to semi trance states that allow in certain cases a greater control of the individual by the leaders of the movements. Beyond Radhadesh shop window open to the public, the movement has a whole network of property, insurance and computer companies."
The Hare Krishna leaders told Human Rights Without Frontiers they did not recognize themselves at all in this portrait of their movement.
There are about 150 - 200 Hare Krishna followers in Belgium. Most of them are Dutch-speaking. In Antwerp (Dutch-speaking part of Belgium), they number about 20 and have their own temple. The Antwerp municipality grants them about 2,500 Euros every year for their free vegetarian food delivery service to the homeless and the people in dire need.
Petite-Somme is the name of the village.h
Durbuy is the name of the closest town.
The Namurois is the name of a region.
Septon is the name of a nearby village.
ADIF spokeswoman is Mrs Julia Nyssens, doctor in law and deputy member of the Information and Advice Centre. AVCS was created by former Jehovah’s Witnesses and was patroned by Mr. Duquesne before his becoming Minister of Interior.
KUL is a Dutch-speaking university.
Former secretary of the current Minister of Interior, Mr Duquesne, whose constituency includes the village of Petite-Somme.