Paris, June 14--In the middle of any European town stands a church or cathedral. Saints have given their names to streets and cities. The working year is dotted with church holidays, including some now so obscure many people no longer know why they're getting the day off. While faith may be increasingly irrelevant to a majority of Europeans, even a casual visitor can recognize the religious roots of the continent once known simply as Christendom.

But stating the obvious is quite different from seeing it, as leaders of the European Union have found out. Two years ago, anticipating the expansion from 15 to 25 members that took place this year on May 1, the EU set out to write a constitution to guide it into the future. The document was supposed to start with some lofty words about Europe's heritage and then get down to the nuts and bolts of how EU members will share power. Lengthy negotiations have ironed out most of the practical problems. But officials tripped over Europe's religious roots right from the start. Some countries wanted constitutional references describing Europe's heritage of "universal Christian values," "currents of Christianity," or "conscience and belief in God" (see proposals). Other countries--especially France--would have none of it. As talks wore on, delegations backing a religious reference pared their demand back simply to including the word "Christian" or "Judeo-Christian." But they haven't been able to get more than a vague statement describing Europe as being inspired by its "cultural, religious and humanist inheritance" (see draft text).
EU leaders are due to make a final decision at a summit in Brussels this Thursday and Friday. Traditionally Catholic countries such as Italy (home to the Vatican) and Poland (birthplace of Pope John Paul II) have been leading a last-ditch effort to include a Christian clause in the preamble. But it looks like they won't have the votes to win this invocatio dei. In a region so heavy with history, describing Europe's heritage is like crossing a minefield. The continent's largest religion clearly provided the faith, art, and feast days that shaped European culture. But Christianity also spawned the Crusades, the Inquisition, Catholic-Protestant wars, and the anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust. "Judeo-Christian" is surely a more accurate term and several delegates suggested it. But that still doesn't say it all because another religion in Europe's history is making a strong comeback. Islam, which was driven out of most of Europe centuries ago by Christian armies, has returned through immigration in recent decades to become the second or third largest religion in most countries. In a decade or more, Muslim Turkey might join the EU club and change its balance dramatically. So no discussion about Europe's history can ignore what could be its future. Encouraged by the pope, seven traditionally Roman Catholic countries launched their make-or-break campaign for Europe's Christian heritage in late May. Portugal, Lithuania, Malta, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic joined Italy and Poland in the effort. Ireland, which has been favorable in the past, stayed neutral during the first half of this year because it holds the EU's rotating presidency.The "pro-roots" camp argues that mentioning Europe's Christian heritage does no more than recognize historical reality. This has some support in the more Catholic states, although it's hardly a vote-getter. The subliminal message that the EU is some kind of "Christian club" is more popular, especially among nationalists who hope that would help shut out Turkey. Interestingly, a reference to a higher authority carries weight in former communist states that saw human rights trampled on for decades by the Marxist atheists who ruled them. Poland's post-communist constitution mentions God in its preamble. The German Basic Law of 1949, drawn up while the shock of Nazism was still fresh, does too.
This weak campaign to insert a reference to Christianity faced staunch opposition from the French, the wiliest players in the EU power game. France, where Catholics and Protestants fought bloody battles in the 16th and 17th centuries, wrote a strict separation of Church and State into its constitution back in 1905. This idea--the same principle of laïcité that recently prompted Paris to ban Muslim headscarves from state schools--rules out any mention of religion. Paris won support from Belgium and Denmark to keep God out of the preamble. Spain, whose former conservative government was in the "pro-roots" camp, switched sides when the Socialists came to power in March. Germany and Britain (where the Church of England is the established church) were flexible, but see no reason to fight against the adamant French when more important issues like voting rights or taxation are at stake. One of the strongest arguments against highlighting Christianity is that this would shut other religions out. Almost no European museum, library or bookstore is complete without the rich contributions that Jews have made to the continent's artistic, intellectual, and scientific life. Muslim scholars kept the heritage of Greek philosophy alive during Europe's Dark Ages, and EU members Spain and Hungary boast monuments from their periods under Muslim rule. Some delegates suggested mentioning all three, only to retreat because they would then have to add even more religions to appear fair.

It became clear that Europe's Muslims were the looming presence few wanted to mention. Over 15 million Muslims now live among the EU's 380 million people and their numbers are growing. The bloc's leaders should decide in December whether to open negotiations on admitting Turkey, which has been knocking at Brussels' door for 40 years. Ankara has introduced so many reforms to qualify for membership that many EU politicians feel they can't tell it to be patient much longer.

The constitutional convention partly created the roots dispute by trying to write an inspiring preamble while steering clear of a possible veto. In its first draft released last year, drafters wrote that Europe was "nourished first by the civilizations of Greece and Rome, characterized by the spiritual impulse always present in its heritage and later by the philosophical currents of the Enlightenment." This bald attempt to leap over 1,500 years of Christianity outraged the Vatican, the Catholic countries and even some atheist politicians who saw it as a denial of an historical fact. The drafters went back to work and produced the blander line about how Europe was "inspired by its cultural, religious and humanist inheritance." Ironically, while the public discussion has focused on the preamble, a far more important boost for Europe's churches is buried deep in the constitution's main text. Article 51 gives EU recognition to the various legal statutes governing churches in member countries and pledges Brussels to holding a regular dialogue with Europe's recognized religions. That means the churches can request meetings with EU officials to present their views on issues such as stem cell research or refugee policies. It guarantees that the current patchwork of religious statutes--from established churches in Britain and Denmark, church taxes collected by the state in Germany, or the strict separation of church and state in France--is left untouched. Established religion, which previously had no status on the EU level, will now be recognized as a fully legitimate part of civil society.
"It's difficult to explain that, in reality, what you have is not so bad," John Coughlan, Brussels spokesman for Europe's Roman Catholic bishops, said of the full constitution text. The latest draft for the EU leaders' summit has no reference to Christianity in the preamble, a signal that it probably has no chance of approval. With a determination their fellow Pole in the Vatican would admire, Warsaw's delegation has suggested it could accept a separate declaration mentioning Europe's Christian heritage as a consolation prize.

How this turns out depends on whether the EU summit approves the whole text, however. Last December's EU summit collapsed in disagreement over EU members' voting rights in the constitution. The thorniest issue going into this meeting--a split over enforcing tough budget rules for members of the euro single currency--will be a tough nut to crack. If the EU fails once again to approve the constitution, don't be surprised if the Poles, Italians, and others try squeezing God into the preamble again.

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