BRUSSELS Hundreds of Afghan refugees have set up camp in a Brussels church, protesting against their imminent deportation to their home country, which they say is not safe.
Sitting in the heart of Brussels' trendy Saint Catherine district, with renowned fish restaurants and designer fashion stores, nothing on the outside of Saint John the Baptist at the Beguinage hints at its temporary residents.
Inside, however, half of the church is filled with tents and makeshift beds. People sit on the floor to eat their lunch and children run around the 17th century baroque church's nave.
The refugees say they fear they would be killed or be forced to join terrorist groups if they returned to Afghanistan.
"We are afraid to die, to go back to die or to join a group of Al-Qaeda that is against humanity," said Samir Hamdard, the 29-year-old spokesman for the group.
Hamdard was born in Afghanistan, but moved to a refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan, at the age of six. He has lived in Belgium for 11 years and speaks fluent French, Dutch and English.
The priest of the Church of Saint John the Baptist at the Beguinage, Daniel Alliet, said he opened the doors to the refugees because he disagreed with Belgium's current asylum policy.
"The main aim of the policy is no longer to focus on who needs help but on how to minimize the number of people coming in," he said.
The number of asylum seekers in the European Union reached 330,000 in 2012, according to the European Union's Statistics office Eurostat, with figures from the first 9 months of 2013 pointing to a further increase.
Before receiving shelter at the Beguinage Church, the Afghans occupied several empty buildings in Brussels from which they were evicted.
They staged several protests to draw attention to their cause and marched to the home towns of Belgium's Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo and Immigration Minister Maggie De Block.
(Reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)