Wed, Feb 21, 2007 - Page 3 News List

Racist couples inspire wedding festival

THE GUARDIAN , BRUSSELS

The expectant young brides-to-be had their hearts set on a white wedding, but the registrar in their home town of Sint Niklaas is black, the first black town hall official anywhere in Flanders.

So they are still single: The three couples refused to be married by him.

The scandal has shocked the small town near Antwerp. But Wouter Van Bellingen, the black deputy mayor and registrar, has bounced back and is planning a wedding festival on March 21, international anti-racism day, for the dozens of couples who want to get hitched by him.

"The reaction has been incredible," he said. "I've done 30 weddings in the past month, that's twice as much as usual. I have people calling from France, the Netherlands, Germany. So many people want to come here now to get married, more than 200 now."

The 34-year-old has spent almost all his life in Sint Niklaas after being born in Antwerp to parents from Rwanda. He was sworn in as an alderman last month, the first black person to hold such office anywhere in Flanders. But even before he took office the three couples already scheduled let it be known they would not be wed by someone who was black.

The mayor, Freddy Willockx, stood by his deputy, announcing that Sint Niklaas would not give in to racism. Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt deplored the scandal and the government's racial equality commission moved to bring charges against the racists.

Van Bellingen is philosophical.

"If they want to get married they'll have to wait six years till I'm finished in office. Or they can move to another town," he said.

In local elections last year a quarter of the town voted for a far right anti-immigrant Flemish separatist party. The separatists are running well in the opinion polls ahead of general elections in June.

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