Christianity as key factor

Published : Jan 30, 2004 00:00 IST

Arab women demonstrate in front of the French Embassy in the Israeli capital of Tel Aviv against the decision by the Jacques Chirac government in France to ban the display of all religious symbols, including the wearing of the hijab (headscarf), in educational institutions. France, a founding member of the E.U., has been staunchly asserting its secularism, which is in conflict with the pro-Christianity campaign by some member-countries. - TAL COHEN/AFP

Arab women demonstrate in front of the French Embassy in the Israeli capital of Tel Aviv against the decision by the Jacques Chirac government in France to ban the display of all religious symbols, including the wearing of the hijab (headscarf), in educational institutions. France, a founding member of the E.U., has been staunchly asserting its secularism, which is in conflict with the pro-Christianity campaign by some member-countries. - TAL COHEN/AFP

As E.U. nations debate whether to incorporate Christianity into the new European Constitution, religious minorities fear that the conservative elements pushing for the change have a darker agenda.

"THE common tradition of Christianity... has made Europe what it is," wrote T.S. Eliot. His words were quoted by British Member of Parliament Andrew Selous in the House of Commons on December 10, 2003, in response to calls across Europe to recognise Christianity in the new European Constitution. The Constitution is undergoing an overhaul as 10 new members, mainly from Eastern Europe, prepare to join the existing 15 in May 2004. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who until recently held the European presidency (Ireland is the current President), launched final constitutional talks in Rome in October last year.

Four predominantly Catholic nations - Italy, Ireland, Poland and Spain - have been calling upon Europe to recognise its Christian roots in the Treaty. The campaign is spearheaded by Pope John Paul II. "Europe cannot deny its Christian heritage, since a great part of its achievements in the fields of law, art, literature and philosophy have been influenced by the evangelical message," the Pope said in June 2002. On October 6, 2003, the Council of European Bishops released a statement to the European Union, which said: "Our assembly... reminds it of the necessity to clearly mention the Christian roots of Europe in the preamble of the E.U. Constitutional agreement. In June 2003, support came even from Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, an atheist. "The most significant feature of every town and city in Europe is either a cathedral or a church," he said. The central argument is that the laws of Europe must be underpinned by a set of common values, which Christianity, being the continent's dominant faith, could provide.

Meanwhile France, a founding member of the E.U., has been staunchly asserting its secularism. In a controversial move in December 2003, it banned the display of overtly religious symbols in educational institutions. In Belgium too, the church and the state are kept apart rigorously. These secular states and atheists across Europe have questioned the assumption that a moral framework cannot exist within a secular Europe. Liberal activists have warned that in a religious society citizens could find their freedoms curtailed. Issues such as homosexuality, contraception, abortion, life sciences (for example, stem cell research) and religious education in schools would be subject to religious criticism. However, the recent protests by Muslim schoolgirls and teachers against the ban on headscarf in French schools showed the conflict not only between religions, but also between religion and secularism.

While religious leaders appeal to citizens to recognise the loving, humanistic tradition of Christianity, there is deep scepticism about the motives of other sections supporting the move. The strongest voice in favour of incorporating Christianity into the Treaty has been that of the political Centre-Right, markedly the Christian Democrats of Germany. They draw their power from the growing support across Europe for far-Right politicians, particularly France's Jean-Marie Le Pen, who fought his campaign on an anti-immigration platform.

In July 2003, 12 of the 15 E.U. member-states failed to meet the deadline to comply with a new Racial Equality Directive. Britain's Labour Member of the European Parliament, Claude Moraes, said, "With this inaction, national governments are sending a clear signal that they will only pay lip-service to their basic obligation to protect millions of citizens from racism. At a time of heightening tension over immigration and the rise of the far-Right, it is vital that a basic level of protection from discrimination on grounds of race and ethnic origin is implemented across the E.U." By not complying with the directive, an opportunity to improve race relations has been lost. Many anti-racism campaigners believe that it would be a retrograde step to affiliate Europe exclusively to one religion.

Masud Shadjareh from the London-based Islamic Human Rights Commission believes that the move towards a Christian Europe is a thinly veiled attempt to deny European membership to Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country. "I think there is definitely a hidden agenda by xenophobes to have Europe designated as a Christian entity with a Christian history," he told Al Jazeera television in December 2003. "If Christianity is mentioned then, by implication, you are excluding other religions including Islam... this means you are denying that Europe is a multi-racial and multi-cultural place," he said. His concerns echoed those of Istvan Ertl, from the European Network Against Racism, a network of European non-governmental organisations working against racism. "There is no denying that Christianity has made a decisive contribution to European identity, but then so has Judaism... as has the tolerant Islam of al-Andalus, which transmitted Greek thought to Europe, and, to a lesser extent, other religions," he wrote in an opinion piece in Parliament Magazine, titled `God in the constitution, Devil in the details'. He warned that "people belonging to religious communities other than traditional Christian Churches often face exclusion and rejection" in Europe. A report in May 2002 by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) stated: "An atmosphere has been created in which Muslims have to justify themselves that they are not terrorists". The EUMC report was critical of the media and politicians, marking out the comments of Silvio Berlusconi as particularly volatile. In 2001, he said that Western civilisations were "superior" to Islamic ones, provoking widespread outrage.

Former Europe Minister in France, Pierre Moscovia, shares Shadjareh's fears. "Europe is not a Christian club and it should not have hidden criteria," he told Jewish Radio in November 2003. His suspicions may not be ill-founded - in May 2003, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) reported that two senior figures in the Vatican "publicly questioned the suitability of Turkey for eventual E.U. membership".

Even if Europe decides not to embrace Christianity officially, the clout of the religious Right in the West may become an inescapable fait accompli. Critics have observed with alarm the use of religion as a political tool by United States President George W Bush. Although the U.S. Constitution clearly states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," Bush has regularly invoked `God' in speeches, especially during the war with Iraq. "The most powerful nation in the world is in the thrall of the religious Right," said Keith Porteous Wood from the U.K. National Secular Society this year. It was rumoured that during the Iraq conflict Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair prayed together. "Whether or not Bush and Blair pray together," says Wood, "they both seem to have a certainty that `they know best' which eludes practically everyone else. Where this could lead to is awful to contemplate." The behaviour of these two Western political giants has prompted worries that American Christian conservativism is spreading to Europe, unimpeded by an increasingly weak and centrist Left.

As yet, however, European attitudes to religion are still palpably different from those of U.S. citizens. A recent World Value Survey revealed that while approximately 61 per cent of Americans agreed that `Life is meaningful only because God exists', only 30 per cent of Europeans agreed with the same statement. The world evangelical database estimates that affiliated Christians make up 73 per cent of the current European population, a figure in steady decline. Meanwhile, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism are becoming increasingly popular, in part due to the impact of immigration. With Muslims currently comprising 15 million of Europe's population, they form a minority that is particularly difficult to ignore.

The aims of the European project are to look forward, to forge a new, more diverse Europe, which stretches far beyond the Catholic sensibilities of Italy to the predominantly Islamic Turkey. Religious discord has been a continual feature of European life. Now, at the cusp of a new Constitution, many feel it is time to embrace secularism and heed the motto of the European Union - `United in Diversity'.

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