As a brief historical follow-up to yesterday’s post on the Revd Harm Schilder, a Catholic priest from Tilburg (Brabant), who wants to post the names and photos of people who leave his Emmaus Church, the Netherlands has a history of registering citizens’ church affiliation.

Schilder’s story brought to mind the Dutch government’s mandatory registration of religious affiliation before the Second World War:

In the Netherlands, the Germans managed to exterminate a relatively large proportion of the Jews.[11] The main reason was that before the war, the Dutch authorities had required citizens to register their religion so that church taxes could be distributed among the various religious organizations.

Several years ago I read another account of this registration which said that the government made this policy more palatable to the people by pointing out that should they be away from home and injured or ailing, the right clergyman (i.e. Catholic or Protestant) could pray over them or give them the last rites and a proper burial. This account went on to say that, thanks to this registration, the Nazis had a very easy time finding out who the Jews were in the Netherlands.

This shows you how a well-intentioned scheme can easily backfire.

The Dutch geography — flatlands and fens — also helped the Nazis. The nation’s high population density and lack of hills and mountains left nowhere for people to hide. There was also no means of escape, except through another occupied nation or German-controlled waterways.

An online article ‘Survival and Resistance: The Netherlands under Nazi Assault’ describes more of what happened under German occupation:

Culturally, Dutch society was stratified largely on the basis of religion. Thus, close friendships between Jews and Christians were uncommon in war-time Holland. This made it difficult for Jews to find a place of hiding within the homes of Gentile neighbors – individuals that they did not know. For those Jews with Christian friends, to accept shelter carried with it the knowledge that discovery placed their friends’ lives into jeopardy. Additionally, most Jews who went into hiding did so as individuals. Rarely, were entire families hidden as in the case of the Franks. Thus, to go into hiding not only endangered the well-being of one’s Gentile benefactors but often meant abandoning other family members including elder parents, spouses, siblings, or children.

The article goes on to say that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were also widely persecuted and killed. Hitler viewed them as ‘troublemakers’ and forbade publication and dissemination of their material.

Whereas the British royal family stayed in the UK, the Netherlands’s Queen Wilhelmina and her family took refuge in Britain.

I mentioned in a previous post last year that, by the end of the war, the Dutch were, sadly, reduced to scrounging for nourishment (emphases mine below). By 1944:

In search of food, people would walk for tens of kilometers to trade valuables for food at farms. Tulip bulbs and sugarbeets were commonly consumed. Furniture and houses were dismantled to provide fuel for heating. From September 1944 until early 1945 the deaths of 18,000 Dutch people were attributed to malnutrition as the primary cause and in many more as a contributing factor.[4] The Dutch Famine ended with the liberation of the western Netherlands in May 1945.

Whilst I am digressing for a moment, it is important for us to learn the lessons of history. The Dutch showed much stamina and resilience. Throughout the Occupation:

Many believed that the war would be short-lived and thus, through a process of seeming cooperation and delay, the impact of Nazi occupation on the Dutch, including Dutch Jews, would be negligible. Unfortunately, the Nazi occupation lasted five years with devastating consequences for all of the Netherlands including the Hunger Winter of 1945 [see preceding quotation].


Many a Dutch [person was] active in speaking out or publishing against the Nazis. These activities occurred in spite of the great risk involved. To be caught meant imprisonment or deportation possibly to Mauthausen from where few returned. Clergy regularly read letters from the pulpit. Underground newspapers flourished and were particularly invaluable after the confiscation of radio sets and the loss of electricity during the later years of the war.

We just do not know what will happen when we cast a vote or act nonchalantly about an enemy, e.g. ‘Oh, don’t worry. Nothing will come of it. Politics as usual.’ We still need to be very careful and make sure we understand the events of the past so that we do not repeat them.

Now onto the present day and the subject of religious affiliation among Catholics and Protestants.

It seems that registration of religion is still required for distribution of church taxes in the Netherlands. With regard to Fr Schilder’s case, the Brabants Dagblad reported that a resident, upset with the priest’s insistence of a board with names and photographs of those who left his church, referred to a site called from which s/he found form letters to print.

This is what says (translated into English):

Dear visitor,

This website makes it easy for Catholics (generally speaking) to unsubscribe from the Catholic Church. Fill in your details [below]. A Foundation for Inter-Church membership records one for the diocese and the parish. Paste them into Word, print them out and sign the documents. Send them, accompanied by a copy of your ID, and you are no longer a member of the club of Ratzinger & Co.

Buddy Jesus says come again!

If you do not know your baptism data anyway you can send a letter to the SILA and you are in any event no longer a Roman Catholic registered with the government.

For more information about writing and the address of your parish on this website.

It’s the penultimate paragraph that caught my eye — ‘registered with the government’.

However, going to that next website indicates that government registration of religion is still active today in the Netherlands:

One of the many privileges that religious institutes in the Netherlands still enjoy the recording of church members through the municipalities using SILA (Interchurch Foundation Membership Administration).

This means that municipalities personal information for SILA, SILA while the only private organization in the Netherlands that information from the GBA (Municipal Personal Records) gets. Update: Dioceses report that ten percent of the parishes is not yet connected to the central membership records of the Church = SILA.

Meanwhile state aid and subsidies to religious bodies, eg broadcasters such as RCC, IKON, etc. are determined by the “interest”, ie the number of members of the religious movement. In addition, there again, there is an exception (Art. 2.42), for which ordinary broadcasters members have, Muslim broadcasters, Broadcasting For Churches, IKON denomination, JO Jewish broadcasting, RKK etc no members have airtime and grants to get.
Case: size Coptic Orthodox community determines grant school.

The apparent social relevance of religion – as in the ethical debate about freedom of speech, euthanasia, abortion and stem cell research and prenatal diagnosis – is measured by the number of members of the Church. What also comes through in the tax privileges that the churches via their ANBI status enjoy.

Perhaps this was part of what Fr Schilder was alluding to, although the news articles were largely unclear in this regard.