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Belgian bishops criticize women’s water attack on archbishop

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Belgian archbishop reacts after activist threw water on him during debate at university in Brussels
Belgian Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard of Mechelen-Brussels reacts after activists from FEMEN threw water at him during a conference at the Free University of Brussels in Belgium April 23. Four bare-breasted protesters disrupted an evening debate and waved placards with the slogan, "Stop homophobia." (CNS photo/Yves Herman, Reuters)

By Catholic News Service

BRUSSELS (CNS) — The Belgian bishops’ conference criticized an attack on its president, Archbishop Andre Leonard of Mechelen-Brussels, during which he was soaked with water by half-naked women.

Four bare-breasted protesters from the international FEMEN movement disrupted the April 23 evening debate at the Free University of Brussels, waving placards with the slogan, “Stop homophobia.”

“A democratic debate on society’s questions is only possible if everyone is allowed to express their ideas in mutual respect and free expression,” the bishops said in an April 24 statement. “The attitude shown by these people totally lacks credibility and civic sense. It also completely contradicts the debate theme and the way the Catholic Church undertakes dialogue in a pluralist context.”

Press photos showed the 72-year-old archbishop sitting and praying as he was soaked by the women, who were later ejected by university guards from the debate, which was titled “Blasphemy: Offense or Freedom of Self-Expression?”

In a Facebook message, FEMEN members said their action had been “directed against the homophobia of Archbishop Leonard,” adding they would demand his dismissal for “spreading hatred and intolerance in our media and universities.”

“If he’s decided to inflict the punishment of abstinence and celibacy, FEMEN will not tolerate his attempt to impose chastity on the homosexual community as the only remedy for what he defines as a pathology,” the message said.

The debate organizer, Guy Haarscher, a professor at the Free University of Brussels, told La Libre Belgique daily April 25 the protest had been “very violent against an old man,” adding that Archbishop Leonard had gained the audience’s sympathy for his “enormous calm.”

“There’s a level of violence which shouldn’t be permitted,” said Haarscher, a former professor at Duke University School of Law. “Although I’m in total agreement with these women in principle, and in total disagreement with Leonard on homosexuality, he has the right to voice his opinions.”

Belgium’s Catholic news agency, CathoBel, said discussion of religious freedom would not be advanced by the “imbecilic provocation” of the women, whose torsos were painted with slogans including “In gay we trust.”

Archbishop Leonard has attracted controversy for statements on moral and social issues since being named head of the archdiocese in January 2010.

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