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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 March 2007, 21:26 GMT
Belgians in anti-racism weddings
The mass wedding in St-Niklaas
Nearly 700 couples say "I do" in St-Niklaas

About 700 Belgian couples have symbolically wed in a Flemish town where three couples had refused to let a black official marry them.

Deputy Mayor Wouter Van Bellingen was the first black councillor elected in St-Niklaas in northern Belgium.

In response to the snub, Mr Van Bellingen decided to organise a mass wedding as an anti-racism protest.

On a cold, wet night, the couples shouted "yes" when Mr Van Bellingen asked if they were ready to marry.

The day's events - chosen to coincide with the International Day against Racism - kicked off with a group hug before the assembled couples exchanged or renewed vows.

There was then a huge wedding photo, a "multicultural dessert buffet" and a wedding dance.

'Primitive form of racism'

Geere Brokken said he was participating to make an anti-racism statement.

"We were indignant that people refused to marry because of someone's skin colour," he said.

Wouter Van Bellingen, civil state alderman of Flemish town St-Niklaas
Mr Van Bellingen oversaw the mass wedding
"You cannot judge somebody, you just cannot."

The councillor, Mr Van Bellingen, said of February's incident: "It was the most primitive form of racism. Nothing but the colour of my skin."

At least 2,000 letters and emails poured in after the incident, AFP news agency reports.

The Rwandan-born councillor was adopted by a Flemish family at birth.

He was elected councillor in the town of some 70,000, 50km (30 miles) north of Brussels, in local elections in October.

At the same elections, the anti-immigration Vlaams Belang got 26% of the vote.

The group has accused Mr Van Bellingen of using the mass wedding to further his political ambitions.

Thousands of people marched last year following the killing of a woman of African origin and the two-year-old girl she was a nanny for in Antwerp.

"We have to take away the fear of the unknown. If you are unknown, you are unloved," Mr Van Bellingen said.

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