The Light of Truth Shines in Belgium
BELGIUM has been called the ‘crossroads of Europe.’ Why? Because this small country is situated between France, Luxembourg, Germany, Great Britain and Holland.
The green and fertile plains of Flanders, as well as the hills and forests of Wallonia, open their “doors” to the inhabitants of such large towns as Brussels, Antwerp, Charleroi and Liège. Each weekend finds many persons traveling one of Europe’s finest highway networks. These roads are even illuminated at night so that motorists can profit from what “nature” offers.
Belgium is also a country of contrasts and often of problems for the two communities making up this nation. Dutch is spoken in Flanders and French in Wallonia. Brussels is situated right in the center of these two cultural and linguistic groups. But the most remarkable contrast is seen in the 18,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses who work together in peace and unity to provide spiritual aid for some 9,800,000 inhabitants.
FIRST ECHOES OF THE “GOOD NEWS”
Motivated by deep love for fellow humans and a keen desire to declare the “good news” to all kinds of people, Charles Taze Russell visited Belgium in the autumn of 1891, during a tour of Europe. Russell, the first president of the Watch Tower Society, realized the people’s need for spiritual freedom, as they were still in dense religious darkness. For most of them, Bible reading was forbidden, and they lived in fear of hellfire and in reverential awe of the parish priest.
Ten years later, a lover of justice living in the region of Charleroi began to brave the superstitious dread associated with reading God’s Word. As soon as he had obtained the first two volumes of Millennial Dawn, this man, J. B. Thilmant, organized a family Bible study. Soon the “good news” was spreading to other towns and even to France, thanks to the courageous work of the Thilmant family.
JEHOVAH BLESSES THE HUMBLE ONES
Neither imposing religious processions nor splendid cathedrals struck fear into Jehovah’s humble servants. After World War I, a man named Joseph Poelmans, who worked in the coal mines at Liège and was well-versed in the Dutch language, regularly cycled 75 miles (120 km) to Antwerp in order to declare the “good news” in that city. Antwerp cathedral, with its spire jutting some 400 feet (122 m) into the sky, houses famous paintings by Rubens, among them “The Resurrection of Christ.” But something else was needed to help those living in Antwerp to understand the significance of this event, which guaranteed that Jesus was the one appointed by Jehovah to “judge the inhabited earth in righteousness.” (Acts 17:31) Brother Poelmans’ humble work was abundantly blessed and today 19 congregations are firmly established in Antwerp.
After World War I our work also made great progress in the region of Liège. Ernest Heuse and Léonard Smets, two service companions of Brother Poelmans, started house-to-house witnessing in that city. They endured great hardships during the two world wars. However, “the good news of peace” touched the hearts of many people, so much so that today there are more than 30 congregations in that region.—Eph. 2:17.
FACING A BAN
On March 30, 1940, the Minister of Home Affairs declared a ban on all our publications. Hardly a month later, Belgium was transformed into a battlefield, and quickly it fell to Hitler’s armies. What would the 218 witnesses of Jehovah do? They continued to announce God’s kingdom as the only hope for peace. Hunted down by the Nazi Gestapo, many Witnesses were arrested, deported and placed in Nazi concentration camps. Some did not survive the terrible torture inflicted upon them.
Brother François Hankus especially was very busy in Jehovah’s service at Charleroi, where he was arrested because of hiding Brother André Wozniak, who was being pursued by the Gestapo. Because Brother Hankus refused to reveal the names of fellow believers, Hitler’s agents beat him and transported him, unconscious, to a detention center. After his arrest, handfuls of his blood-clotted hair were found in his home. He never completely recovered from the brutal treatment that he suffered during the years of his detention. However, he served Jehovah with all his soul up until his dying breath in 1954. Today, there are 26 congregations in Charleroi.
The Watch Tower Society has no printing plant in Belgium. But during the Nazi occupation, with the cooperation of a printer in Brussels, the brothers were able to publish 6,000 copies of the Bible aid Children. When the war ended, more than 700 courageous Kingdom publishers emerged from underground activity, and these served as a springboard for unprecedented expansion. Brother Ernest Heuse, Jr., left Liège and took up residence in Brussels. At that time, there were only two congregations in the capital city (one French and the other Flemish- or Dutch-speaking) for more than 1,000,000 inhabitants. Today, there are over 40 congregations in Brussels.
Brother Wozniak, who had escaped from many traps set for him by the Nazis, traveled all over Flanders. He was a courageous house-to-house preacher. The discovery of coal brought many workers to the region known as Kempenland, and towns such as Genk, Eisden and Waterschei became fertile fields for declaring the “good news.” Little by little, lovers of justice and truth were liberated from the many traditions that had kept them in captivity, and they accepted the truth, so much so that today 115 congregations are located in Flanders. In days gone by, it was a common sight to see the parish priest going from house to house. Why? To collect and destroy publications left by the brothers.
GIVING A COMPLETE WITNESS
A visitor to the heavily populated areas of Belgium may be surprised to hear Italian spoken, as well as Spanish, Greek, Arabic, Turkish and English. In the capital city, Brussels, more than 500 international organizations have offices. Foreigners make up about one fifth of the population, and the largest foreign-speaking community is Italian. During our international assembly held at Charleroi in 1965, N. H. Knorr (then the Society’s president) arranged for the branch office to organize foreign-language congregations in Belgium. To an audience of 725 Italian brothers, he announced that 10 Italian congregations could be formed. Today throughout the country there are 30 Italian congregations.
While working in a coal mine, a certain Italian received one of our books and assumed that it had considerable value because of its binding and gold lettering. So he tried to sell it; but no one in the mine would buy the book. Finally, the man decided to read the publication himself because he wondered why no one wanted to buy it. That was how he found the truth. He now serves as an appointed elder in an Italian congregation and his son is in the circuit work.
Another Italian accepted a Bible study and saw the need of acquainting his family with the Kingdom message. Although a Catholic priest tried to discourage him from continuing to study the Bible, the cleric’s philosophical arguments were no match for the truth. The man’s determination to continue studying could not be undermined even by his father’s threat: “If you don’t quit that new religion, I’ll break your legs!” But nothing of the sort happened, and in time this Italian had the joy of helping his wife and other members of his family to appreciate Bible truth. This produced a chain reaction that spread throughout Belgium and into Switzerland and Italy, to such an extent that today more than 70 members of this brother’s family, including his parents, are in the truth.
The local brothers also have been able to find many sheeplike individuals among the Spanish-, Greek-, English- and Turkish-speaking population. Without knowing how to read an interested person’s native tongue, Kingdom publishers often conduct Bible studies with the help of two books (one in the language spoken by the Witness and the other in that of the student). Jehovah has truly caused the seeds of truth to grow. Today, in Belgium, there are nine Greek congregations, seven Spanish and three English. Economic problems have obliged many Italian, Greek and Spanish families to return to their homelands, but this has turned out to be a blessing because these Witnesses continue to serve in their respective countries where the need is much greater than it is in Belgium.
Going from house to house today in Belgium, Jehovah’s servants meet growing indifference among the people. The present generation is absorbed with the desire to increase their material possessions and is not interested in religion. Catholics are disappointed by what is taking place in their own religion. Some say: “Nothing goes right in our church.” And others remark: “It’s the end of the Catholic Church.” In times past, the Catholic Church was proud to be able to say that Belgium was almost 100 percent Catholic. But more recently a priest in Brussels has said that only 10 percent of Catholics in Belgium now practice their religion and, of these, only 10 percent are considered “good Christians.” Hence, we must put forth considerable effort to find persons sincerely interested in the Bible. But our effort is being blessed, and during the past two years, more than 1,600 persons have been baptized in symbol of their dedication to Jehovah God.
The Kingdom-preaching work is so well known in Belgium that it is not rare to hear people talking about Jehovah’s Witnesses. One day at his place of employment a brother overheard a very heated conversation that went like this: ‘You must admit that when you take time out to talk to one of them, there is some truth in what they say.’ His curiosity aroused, the brother asked about whom they were talking. Back came the reply: ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses, of course. Haven’t you ever had them at your door?’ At that, the brother introduced himself as a Witness and this led to a Bible study with one man and his wife. The following week, another couple was present for the study, and by the week thereafter a young woman had joined the group. During the study, her husband quietly sat on the couch, reading a worldly magazine. At another time, he stayed in the kitchen. During the fourth study, he again kept his distance. But when a question was asked about which year marked the beginning of the “last days” and there was a moment’s hesitation, he whispered to his wife, “1914!” (2 Tim. 3:1) Unknown to the others present, he had already finished reading our book The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life. After that, the man attended the study regularly. All together, the three couples decided to stop smoking and to dress with modesty. Rapid spiritual progress was made and all six are now baptized Christians.
YOUNG PERSONS ACCEPT THE TRUTH
The failure of Christendom has brought about religious apathy and violence. Being freed from restraint and superstition, many young people have turned their attention to other things, including drugs and debauchery. But many young couples have been helped to straighten out their lives by adopting true Christianity.
A 15-year-old youth became associated with a motorcycle gang that often fought with other gangs. In time, he went to Amsterdam to try different drugs. Then he busied himself with prostitution in Belgium, persuading girls to work in brothels. Hunted by the police because of his illegal activities, at the age of 21 the young man concluded that life had no purpose. Having become disgusted with such an existence, he prayed, asking God, if He really existed, to help him to get out of the mess in which he found himself. Later, he discovered that his elder brother had become one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and that his father, who had been a drunkard, brawler and gambler, had put a stop to these practices and was attending a Bible study. The young man also began studying the Bible and realized that he had received an answer to his prayer.
In time, this young person gave himself up to the police. The girl with whom he had been living and who had participated with him in illegal practices also accepted the truth, and they got married. Because of the changes that the young man had made in his life, the tribunal acquitted him of his past misdeeds. This resulted in a powerful witness in that region, and the couple now live exemplary Christian lives.
WE WIN RESPECT
As regards our work, matters have changed greatly in Belgium during the last few years. Radio, television and the press all have emphasized our exemplary Christian way of life. These comments have not passed unnoticed and have helped many persons to become worshipers of Jehovah. The “Divine Victory” International Assembly held at Brussels in 1973 left a deep impression on the populace. Brothers from Spain and Portugal who then did not enjoy the liberty of freely gathering together came to Brussels for that assembly, the total attendance on the last day being 53,199. A stirring witness was given in Brussels, and even today people talk about that gathering.
Even Catholic priests cite Jehovah’s Witnesses as examples. One day, a fervent Catholic came into possession of a Bible. While reading it, he realized how confused he was. Wanting to know where the truth could be found, he prayed to God night and day. One Sunday, while attending Mass, the man heard the priest tell the four persons present that the true Christians are Jehovah’s Witnesses because they go from house to house to preach God’s message. What a revelation that was—and it had come straight from the priest’s mouth! Still speaking to the same four persons, the priest added: “And you, you don’t even make the effort to come to church.” These statements moved the man to abandon the Catholic Church and seek the truth. Just at that time, he was invited to attend the Memorial of Jesus Christ’s death and was very much impressed with the speaker’s use of the Scriptures. The man’s heart was touched and he asked the Witnesses for a Bible study, which finally helped him to dedicate his life to Jehovah.
Indeed, times have changed if one recalls the early days of the Kingdom-preaching work in Belgium. However, the harvest is not yet completed, judging by the 36,383 persons attending the Memorial here in 1979—more than double the number of Kingdom proclaimers in Belgium.
There is still much witnessing work to be done in Belgium, when a person considers the density of the population, one of the most concentrated in the world. Like Jesus Christ, we feel pity for these crowds because, spiritually speaking, they are “skinned and thrown about like sheep without a shepherd.” Yes, the “harvest” still is great in Belgium.—Matt. 9:36, 37.
[Map of Belgium on page 8]
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FLANDERS (Dutch speaking)
WALLONIA (French speaking)