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People, Language & Religion


Two thousand years ago the population of Belgium, as mentioned by Julius Caesar in his book on the Gallic wars, was of Celtic stock. This population was displaced or lost its identity, however, during the great invasions that brought down the Roman Empire. The Salian Franks, who settled there during the 4th century AD, are considered the ancestors of Belgium's present population. The origin of the language frontier in Belgium has never been satisfactorily explained. In the indigenous population, the ratio of Flemings (Dutch speakers) to Walloons (French speakers) is about 5 to 3. In 2002, the Flemings constituted about 58% of the total population; Walloons accounted for 31%. The remaining 11% was comprised of those with mixed ancestry or other groups.


According to a 1970 constitutional revision, there are three official languages in Belgium – French, Dutch (also called Flemish), and German. Dutch is the language of the four provinces of Antwerp, Limburg, East Flanders (Oost-Vlaanderen), and West Flanders (West-Vlaanderen), which form the northern half of the country. French is the language of the four southern Walloon provinces of Hainaut, Liège, Luxembourg and Namur. The central province of Brabant is divided into three districts – one French-speaking (Nivelles, Nijvel), one Dutch-speaking (Leuven, Louvain), and one bilingual (composed of the 19 boroughs of the capital city, Brussels). The majority of people in the Brussels metropolitan area are French-speaking.

The relationship between the two major language groups has been tense at times. For many years, French was the only official language. A series of laws enacted in the 1930s established equality between the two languages. Dutch became the language of administration, the schools, and the courts in the Flemish region (Flanders), while French continued to be the language of Wallonia. The use of German is regulated in the same way in the German-speaking municipalities in the province of Liège. As a rule, French is studied in all secondary schools in the Flemish region, while Dutch is a required secondary-school subject in Wallonia.

In 1963, a set of laws created four linguistic regions (with bilingual status for Brussels), a decision incorporated into the constitution in 1970. Subsequent legislation in 1971-74 provided for cultural autonomy, regional economic power, and linguistic equality in the central government. Disagreement over the future status of bilingual Brussels intensified during the late 1970s. In 1980, after a political crisis, the Flemish and Walloon regions were given greater autonomy, but the issue of Brussels, a predominantly French-speaking territory surrounded by a Dutch-speaking region, remained intractable and was deferred. According to 2002 estimates, 60% of the total population speak Dutch (Flemish), 40% speak French, less than 1% speak German, and 11% are legally bilingual in Dutch and French.


Religious liberty is guaranteed by the constitution, and no inquiries regarding religion are made by census takers. According to a 2002 report, however, about 75% of the population is Roman Catholic, and 25% are Protestant or other. The Muslim population numbers about 350,000, 90% of whom are Sunni. Protestants number between 90,000 and 100,000. Greek and Russian Orthodox adherents number about 100,000. The Jewish community is approximately 40,000, and Anglicans number approximately 21,000. The largest unrecognized religions include the Jehovah's Witnesses, with 27,000 members and Mormons, with about 3,000 members. About 350,000 people belong to "laics," the government's term for non-confessional philosophical organisations. Unofficial estimates report that up to 10% of the population do not practice any religion at all.