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EU: History Versus Modernity -- What Place For Religion In The Constitution?

Religion affects everyone's lives -- even those who are nonbelievers. And it is undeniable that religion, for better or worse, has had a vast influence over the course of history in most societies. With the Convention on the Future of Europe now drawing up a constitution for an expanded European Union of 25 members, the question arises: how can the Christian heritage of Europe be reflected in this document? Or should it not be mentioned at all? After all, this is a secular and pluralistic era, and what of the contributions of Islam and Judaism, which are as at home in Europe as Christianity?

Prague, 21 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Vatican, naturally enough, puts matters of faith ahead of temporal considerations: For Pope John Paul II, this material world and its tribulations are only a preparation for eternal life in the next.

Politicians, however, have a very different perspective. For them, this life and its problems are the focus of reality, and heaven can wait -- particularly in a modern Europe where organized religion is steadily losing influence.

It is in this context that the pope is pressing for the world of the spirit to be recognized in the new constitution for the expanded European Union. That document is now being drawn up by the Convention on the Future of Europe, chaired by former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing.

Giscard flew to Rome several weeks ago for an audience with the pontiff, during which John Paul pressed him to include a reference in the constitution to the contribution that Christianity in particular, and religion in general, has made to European heritage. The pope said that believers wanted their "identity and specific contributions to the life of European societies" respected by the new constitution. Giscard, noncommittal, said the convention would ponder the matter.

Later, at a diplomatic reception, the pontiff said that building a united Europe needs leaders with "will and determination, with a desire to build the union on common values, aware of the Christian roots of different peoples which are an inescapable part of European history."

The pope's request immediately raised controversy among those who saw references to specific religious beliefs as inappropriate. One such person is the eminent German-based theologian, Professor Hans Kung, who said: "I do not see how we can just take Christianity as the religion of Europe. I am myself a convinced Christian, and a convinced Catholic theologian, and I would have no objection to mentioning the name of God in the constitution of Europe, as we have it in the constitution of my own home country Switzerland."

But at the same time, Kung -- a dissident who has previously clashed with the pope -- sees the pontiff as sending the wrong message. "A lot of people have the impression that this pope is precisely promoting a model of Europe which is basically Roman Catholic, which tolerates the other [religions], but does not really have a common understanding [with them] and which has not acknowledged the other religions as also true religions."

Another critic is Mouloud Aounit, Paris-based director of the Movement against Racism and for Amity among Peoples. He was quoted in "European Voice" as saying that there has been a serious rise in "Islamophobia" in Europe since last year's terror attacks on the United States. And he says the pope's divisive comments make that situation worse.

The pope's ideas, however, are not without their defendants. Among them is John Coughlan, spokesman of the Catholic lobby group COMECE (Commission of the Bishops Conference of the European Community). He said there's a certain amount of misunderstanding about John Paul's intentions. "In the preamble of such a constitution, the proposal would be to recognize Europe's religious heritage. Now that heritage is a diverse one, it is not just a Christian one. The Islamic and Jewish religions in particular have always played an important role -- and the pope recognizes that."

Coughlan says there is therefore no reason for Muslims or Jews to be offended by the papal proposals. He says those who object appear to be doing so mainly on the grounds that they favor the French style of constitution, which separates the secular state and the church so thoroughly that no mention at all is made of spiritual life in that document. But Coughlan does not share that ideal of total separation. "If we want this future European Union to be a union of peoples, and not just a union of states, then we have to make a reference to something closer to what lies at the root of the values we have as citizens, what is the inspiration that makes us want to work for peace and stability in Europe, and to work together as different communities, and certainly for most Christian churches, those values are rooted in their faith in God."

The constitutional convention started earlier this year and is expected to finalize a draft constitutional document by early next year.