European Union Debates Nod to God

Article excerpt

In Poland, where Catholicism prevails, religious law holds a firm grip oil the civil realm. But in France, where most people are Christian but secularism is sacrosanct, the government is battling its burgeoning Muslim population of 5 million over a proposed ban on overt displays of religious devotion.

In Turkey, a secular state made up primarily of Muslims, officials hope to join a European Union that is devoid of explicit references to a Christian God.

As the, European Union moves forward with long-term plans to broaden its membership, its leaders are struggling to encompass more ethnicities and religions under one banner than at any time since the Roman Empire.

One of themost heated arguments in the effort to create a pan European constitution centers on whether it should mention God or religion in its preamble. Talks meant to complete the constitution stalled in December over a disagreement on how much voting power each country would hold. "We are seeing the tectonic plates of the world's three major religions rubbing up against each other and shooting up sparks," said Graham Watson, Liberal Democrat member of the European Parliament for South West England.

"Europe was founded to stop rival tribes from feuding and ethnic cleansing leading to war; we've got to remain vigilant on these issues," Watson said in a January interview in Strasbourg, France, the home of the European Union Parliament. Disagreements pitting religious beliefs against secular values--affecting issues ranging from stem cell research and abortion to freedom of expression--are likely to multiply as the 15-nation European Union prepares to accept ten more countries in May, growing in representation from 370 million people to 450 million.

The constitutional project, years in the making, is meant to simplify European Union law, which consists of a complex series of disparate treaties, and lay out the union's shared beliefs and values.

Meeting at the European Union Parliament for the final session last year, both sides of the religion debate put forth their positions.

One camp contended that Europe's Christian heritage provides it with common cultural underpinnings, and that ignoring religion would rob a unified Europe of its soul. Leading the argument are the Poles--devout Catholics now that communism no longer dictates decisions--with support from Catholic countries such as Italy, Spain and Ireland, as well as from Christian Democratic parties across the continent. In addition, Pope John Paul II has lobbied for a clear reference to God and to the Christian faith.

"The preamble should not divide, it should join Europe," said Edmund Wittbrodt, a Polish observer appointed to the parliament in the year before Poland officially joins the European Union. "I think the best solution is openness like it is seen by Pope John Paul II. He shows that different religions can get along together. …