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 Burdun Iliya /

BELGIUM, December 2, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — Belgian Catholics have been banned from attending Mass over Christmas, as the government-mandated prohibition of public worship has been extended until mid-January.

Belgium’s government announced the return to a national lockdown at the end of October, with the restrictions commencing on November 2. As part of the measures imposed, public worship was banned along with so-called non-essential shops.

The measures were originally due to expire in mid-December, and at the time, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Belgium released a statement in which they encouraged people to “make the most of this opportunity, obviously taking into account the health standards in force.”

Churches remained open for private prayer, the bishops pointed out, while Masses were live-streamed online.

Belgium’s lockdown has now been extended, with the cessation of public worship to continue until January 15. Under the new decrees, “non-essential shops” may reopen under “strict hygiene rules,” as also may “museums and swimming pools.”

In their statement responding to the extension of the prohibition of worship, the Belgian bishops wrote to “express their solidarity with the Government’s measures to counter the pandemic, avoid as many victims as possible and relieve the pressure on our health system.”

The press release continued: “The Bishops, like many believers, however, feel this lockdown of public religious celebrations in churches, as a limitation on the experience of their faith.”

A wish to “resume dialogue” was expressed by the bishops in order to “consult on the resumption of public religious celebrations” with the government.

The bishops also added that “parish officials” should “allow” people to “a visit to the crib” at Christmas, and to keep churches open for private prayer during the lockdown.

The Belgian minister of the interior, Annelies Verlinden, has previously warned that police would “ensure compliance with health measures at Christmas,” knocking on doors to assess if families are breaking COVID-19 restrictions. While she stopped short of saying police would enter houses, she confirmed that police will “monitor compliance with the measures.” “Enforcement is very important.”

The government’s move to further extend public worship is not without precedent, since the bishops themselves voluntarily closed the churches in March. Their statement at the time read: “Due to the expansion of the Coronavirus Covid-19 epidemic, the bishops of Belgium decide today to suspend all public liturgical celebrations in our country.” They later moved to ban baptisms.

Meanwhile, a group of Belgian Catholics are petitioning the bishops and the papal nuncio for the resumption of public worship. Under the name “Committee of Concerned Catholics,” the group is asking that worship be allowed under the conditions existing prior to the second lockdown.

Philip Gray, a canon lawyer, president of St. Joseph’s Foundation, and director of Catholics United for the Faith (CUF), previously spoke to LifeSite regarding the canonical legality of bishops prohibiting worship.

Under canon law, baptized Catholics “have a right to receive the sacraments if they ask for it at an appropriate time, and are properly disposed, and it’s the minister of the sacrament who makes that determination,” Gray told LifeSiteNews.

His words were echoed by Bishop Athanasius Schneider, who sternly rebuked bishops who had closed their churches to the faithful. “Bishops who not only did not care but directly prohibited their faithful access to the sacraments, especially to the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist and the sacrament of Penance, behaved themselves as fake shepherds, who seek their own advantage,” Schneider said.

In an open letter published in May, Catholic clergy led by former papal nuncio Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò and Cardinals Gerhard Ludwig Müller, Joseph Zen, and Janis Pujats reminded politicians around the world that “the state has no right to interfere, for any reason whatsoever, in the sovereignty of the church.”

“This autonomy and freedom are an innate right that Our Lord Jesus Christ has given her for the pursuit of her proper ends. For this reason, as pastors we firmly assert the right to decide autonomously on the celebration of Mass and the Sacraments, just as we claim absolute autonomy in matters falling within our immediate jurisdiction, such as liturgical norms and ways of administering Communion and the Sacraments,” the signatories stated.