BRUSSELS - A decision by the Brussels municipality to replace traditional Christmas tree with an abstract light installation is raising debates about the impact of multiculturalism on the country's Christian traditions.
"We think the tree has been put up for cultural reasons, Erik Maxwell, from Brussels, told the BBC News Online.
A tree is for Christmas and Christians but now there are a lot of Muslims here in Brussels.
So to avoid discussions they have just replaced a tree with a couple of cubes! I am more traditional, I prefer the usual tree. That's better for the Belgian people."
Traditionally, a 20m (65ft) pine tree taken from the forests of the Ardennes has adorned the Grand Place, the city's central square.
But this year, the tree has been replaced with a 25m (82ft) construction, though smaller real Christmas trees still decorate the square, a spokesman for the mayor's office said.
Critics accuse Brussels officials of opting for the installation for fear of offending non-Christians, especially Muslims.
More than 11,000 signatures have been gathered in an online petition and a Facebook page attacking the new feature has been launched.
The controversy heightened after Bianca Debaets, a city councilor from the Christian Democrat and Flemish Party, accused the Socialist-run municipality of pandering to the sensitivities of non-Christians by scrapping the traditional tree.
What next? she asked. Will Easter eggs be banned from the city because they make us think of Easter?
Debaets argued that she believed a "misplaced argument" over religious sensitivities had moved Brussels to put up the light sculpture.
"For a lot of people who are not Christians, the tree there is offensive to them," she told reporters.
Christians celebrate Christmas Day on December 25.
Popular Christmas themes include the promotion of goodwill, giving, compassion, and quality family time.
Brussels Muslims say they have no opposition to the Christmas tree.
"We know we are living in a country with a Christian culture, we take no offence over a traditional Christmas tree," Semsettin Ugurlu, chairman of the umbrella Belgian Muslim Executive, said.
Belgian Muslims are estimated at 450,000 - out of a 10-million-population - about half of them are from Moroccan origin, while 120,000 are from Turkish origin.
A recent estimate in the Belgian newspaper Le Soir suggested Muslims made up 22% of the population of Brussels and its region as of 2010.
Defending the decision, Belgian officials argue that the light installation was meant to enhance Brussels' popular winter market.
"What we want is just to modernize the pleasure of winter, of this Christmas market and all the image of Brussels," said Tourism councilor Philippe Close.
The city's website said the new tree was one of five "light" installations around the Grand Place this year, offering visitors the chance to climb to the top and enjoy "beautiful views" of the city.
Councilor Close insisted that the aim was to show off the "avant-garde character" of Brussels by blending the modern and the traditional, to produce something new and different.
More traditional Christmas symbols would also be on display in the Grand Place, including a Nativity scene, he said.
"The Christmas tree is not a religious symbol and actually lots of Muslims have a Christmas tree at home.
"For people who want a traditional religious symbol, we have the nativity scene here in the square. For people who want modernity, we have this new tree."
Miryam Oostling, a visitor from Leeuwarden in the Netherlands, praised the idea of this year's tree."I quite like the tree. It's a piece of modern art. It's cosy!"
Reproduced with permission from OnIslam.net