Molenbeek mosque hosts Christmas meal
The terrorist attacks in Paris last November may have boosted populist movements across Europe and given rise to a feeling of insecurity.
But in Molenbeek, a working-class district in Brussels, the EU capital, where the perpetrators grew up, a traumatised community is also making efforts to bridge divides.
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Earlier this year, Belgian police arrested one of the Paris attackers, Salah Abdeslam, whose actions had led to the deaths of 130 people.
The 27-year old, Belgian-born French national, who was a petty criminal prior to the Paris attacks, had for months evaded capture until he was caught near a Molenbeek mosque, which, on Saturday (17 December), hosted a Christmas meal for Christians, Jews and atheists.
"A mosque that opens its doors for a Christmas meal is a message of solidarity and peace," Sarah Turine, a local councillor in the Molenbeek district, and one of the organisers of the meal, told EUobserver.
"I think that for some, it is the first time they've entered this building, which is an annex. We are not in the prayer hall but we are in Brussels largest mosque," she said.
Among the several hundred people who attended the meal was Marc Neiger, a rabbi at the Beth Hillel synagogue in Brussels. Neiger walked into Al Khalil mosque carrying a golden, seven-candle menorah and was greeted warmly.
He was seated alongside imam Mustafa Kastit and father Aurelian Saneko, a priest at the Church of St John the Baptist. Each of them took a turn to address the crowd.
"The Jewish community, at least our Jewish community, wants to be a part of inter-religious dialogue," Neiger told EUobserver.
"What we can do is just get to know one another, especially since, many people, many non-Jews, whatever their religion, probably haven't met a Jew," he said.
The official invitation included a call for atheists, local residents in general, and people of other faiths, to also dine at the meal, prepared by three local mosques.
"Our respective traditions lead to a common value, which is grounded in the sense of sharing, in love and the desire for the well-being of others," said Kastit, the imam.
Such efforts are not unique in Molenbeek and picked up pace since an earlier attack in France - the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris in January last year.
Efforts to dispel prejudice and to change Molenbeek's image as a hotbed of Islamist terrorism are part of a broader initiative launched almost two years ago.
The predominately Moroccan neighbourhood of Molenbeek is home to 135 nationalities in total, but has been linked to a series of terror attacks.
Amedy Coulibaly, who gunned down the Charlie Hebdo staff in Paris, had bought his weapons in Molenbeek.
But it is a reputation that local officials and residents are keen to shake off.
"We are rebuilding through events like tonight," said Molenbeek's mayor Francoise Schepmans.
Armed patrols of Belgian soldiers are now a common sight in much of Brussels city centre amid fears that other attacks could be carried out.
Some populist politicians have also used Molenbeek as a platform to launch anti-immigrant tirades, but the communities that make up the municipality are making efforts to reach out to one another.
Molenbeek is culturally rich, relaxed, and also home to an emerging art scene.
The Millennium Iconoclast Museum of Art, a contemporary art museum, opened its doors in the neighbourhood with a burlesque show in April.
The municipality also launched a working group to bridge cultural divides in autumn 2014.
Composed of local religious leaders, a women's centre, and youth organisations, among others, it started setting up meetings throughout the neighbourhood to address a range of issues from violence to prejudice.
"For each initiative done, there are new associations that want to join and help," said Turine, the Molenbeek council official.
Next March, they are organising a joint festival between Jews and Muslims to highlight their historical and cultural backgrounds.
They also aim to hold a separate event on secularism.