Belgian Catholics contest 15 at-a-time COVID rule in one of world's biggest churches

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Brussels’ cavernous basilica is one of the largest churches in the world but COVID-19 rules allow only 15 people at a time to attend mass there, the same limit applied to much smaller religious venues in Belgium.

Slideshow ( 3 images )

Dozens of worshippers of different religions and clergy demonstrated in the centre of the Belgian capital on Sunday calling for a change to the rules.

“Here, more than in any other building in Belgium, this law is an incredible absurdity,” said the Catholic basilica’s priest Marc Leroy who joined the protests on Sunday.

Together with members of other faith groups he has launched an online petition for the restrictions to be made proportional to the size of buildings.

The national basilica, an 8,000 square metre (86,111 square feet) art deco masterpiece which tourist literature describes as the fifth biggest church in the world, towers over the western suburbs of Brussels and can host a congregation of hundreds for mass.

The 15-person limit for places of worship was set by the government in December as the country faced a second wave of COVID-19 infections. Religious ceremonies had been completely forbidden during the worst phases of the pandemic.

A spokeswoman for the interior ministry told Reuters the rules were meant to stop the spread of the virus in enclosed places which are often difficult to ventilate.

She added that a government meeting set for Friday would discuss restrictions.

“This house is so big in comparison to a bus, or an airport or a plane with 300, 400 passengers. I find it absurd to only allow in 15 people in a basilica,” worshipper Jacques Jazz said.

Leroy said they had multiplied the number of services in an attempt to accommodate as many people as possible, but added he still had to turn parishioners away - a problem that could get worse as Easter approaches.

“It’s completely ridiculous, they haven’t thought about it. It’s unjust. And if some people think we don’t need to pray right now then they’re wrong,” worshipper Michel Beke said.

Additional reporting by Francesco Guarascio @fraguarascio; editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise