- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 31, 2007

SINT-NIKLAAS, Belgium — Wouter Van Bellingen has the name, the lingo, the clothes and the upbringing of your typical Flemish alderman.

One thing sets him apart: Mr. Van Bellingen is black in a mostly white city, and for that reason, three local couples refused to let him conduct their City Hall weddings.

“It was the most primitive form of racism. Nothing but the color of my skin,” Mr. Van Bellingen said of the snub. The 34-year-old alderman was adopted by a Flemish family at birth and never knew his Rwandan parents.

But instead of lodging a discrimination complaint, he decided to organize a celebration of diversity. The evening of March 21 he oversaw a ceremony of hundreds of couples vowing eternal love and sending a message against racism.

Nearly 700 couples participated, either renewing their wedding vows or pledging to marry.

“Yes!” the couples shouted when Mr. Van Bellingen asked whether they were ready to commit to tying the knot. The ceremony, in Belgium’s biggest market square, was followed by a group hug, a huge photo, a “multicultural dessert buffet” and a dance.

Laurent De Keersmaecker, 84, cradled a framed picture of his wife Wivina. He would have been married 60 years if she had not been killed in an accident two years ago. “I just wanted to renew my vows,” he whispered, adding: “It is a scandal what these three couples did. White, yellow or black — what would I care?”

Mr. Van Bellingen said his decision to hold the ceremony on international anti-racism day came from a lifetime of developing defenses against racist abuse.

“I do not feel scarred. It has been an enrichment in a sense,” he told the Associated Press. “You create a mechanism to put things in perspective. I do it with humor.”

His call for the ceremony was met by a groundswell of support, even though the ceremony was not legally binding.

Sabine Van Camp was at work when an e-mail flashed across her screen from her husband, Guy: “You want to do it again?” he asked.

It was not the most romantic way to propose a renewal of vows, but the three couples who had refused to allow Mr. Van Bellingen to preside over their weddings in January had touched a nerve in this city of 69,000 people some 30 miles north of Brussels.

“It was such a scandal. The gall of it all,” Mrs. Van Camp said.

She accepted her husband’s proposal — also by e-mail. Then the 42-year-old city clerk retrieved her wedding gown from the closet, three years after their summer wedding.

Katrien Waeckens also wore her wedding dress that Wednesday, stretched tight across her pregnant belly. “I felt ashamed of my city when it happened. I do this for a better future,” she said as she renewed her vows, five years after her wedding.

Erwin De Beuckelaer and his fiancee, Veerle, are to be married May 12 at a ceremony presided over by Mr. Van Bellingen. But for them, the March 21 ceremony was more than a dress rehearsal. “There was this absolute incomprehension when we heard it,” he said. “Absolutely, this is our support for him.”

Mr. Van Bellingen became the first black alderman elected in Belgium’s northern Flanders region, representing a moderate nationalist party. He said his election demonstrates growing opposition to racism in a city where an anti-immigration party won 26 percent of the vote in elections last year.

A year ago, a teenager with links to extreme right militants went on a rampage with a rifle in nearby Antwerp, searching for anyone who looked foreign. He killed an African woman and the white child in her care, and seriously wounded a Turkish woman.

Mr. Van Bellingen takes care not to stigmatize his city and region. He calls himself a victim of racism still found all over Europe.

“Like all colored people, I live this on an almost daily basis,” he said, recalling catcalls at school, doors being slammed in his face and the amazement expressed by some countrymen that he speaks fluent Dutch.

Mr. Van Bellingen said he has been asked why he didn’t lash out in anger at the three couples.

“It is the story of everyone who is discriminated against. If you act impetuously, you stop functioning,” he said. “Now, I have achieved a lot more.”

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