Europe debates God's place in new constitution

A divine reference is among the most contentious issues as delegates reconvene this month.

As Europe works to remake itself as a single entity, the idea of a divine entity may get left out.

The European Union is debating whether God has a place in its new constitution. The issue is among the most divisive among the constitutional convention's 105 delegates, who reconvene later this month.

The debate pits conservatives against socialists, and sets strongly secular countries like France and Belgium against nations like Poland and Ireland that have stronger religious identification.

The issue goes to the heart of what it means to be a European in an increasingly diverse and expanding continent that may one day include Muslim Turkey.

How the question of religion is handled could have serious legal implications once the EU's constitutional text comes into force, officials say, possibly influencing the outcome of future court rulings on such issues as euthanasia, abortion rights, and human cloning. "This debate is not just an academic one," says EU spokesman Jonathan Faull. "In 10 years', 15 or 100 years' time, it could have important implications in interpreting the text."

A reference to a Christian God will strengthen European identity, say the idea's supporters. "Europe as a whole is based on a Christian heritage," says Elmar Brok, a European deputy from Germany, who chairs the caucus of the conservative European People's Party (PPE) at the convention.

Opponents argue that such a reference would be, in the view of socialist French deputy Olivier Duhamel, "absurd," because it would exclude Muslims and others of non-Christian faiths, as well as citizens who do not believe in God.

More than 80 amendments have been proposed for an article on European values where religion would be included. At the other end of the spectrum, amendments by socialists call for "a guarantee of the separation of church and state."

The Vatican and Orthodox and Protestant churches have heavily lobbied the convention to include a reference to the Continent's Christian heritage.

Pierre de Charentenay, a Jesuit priest who works for a bishops' group that promotes Catholic interests at the EU, says a religious mention "is important for countries like Germany or Italy, which already mention Christianity in their own constitution." The charters of EU members Ireland and Greece, and those of Poland and Slovakia, set to join the EU next year, refer to God or a Christian heritage.

Some Christian groups are approaching the divine reference with caution.

Les Semaines Sociales de France, A French Christian policy group, agreed to support an amendment calling for a mention of God only after inserting a statement warning that God and religion should not be used for political gain.

The article signed on to by Les Semaines - along with Christian lay groups from Germany and Poland - is based on Poland's postcommunist constitution, which had to accommodate communists as well as Catholics. The proposal says: "The Union values include the values of those who believe in God as the source of truth, justice, good, and beauty, as well as those who do not share such a belief but respect these universal values arising from other sources."

"What should be achieved is a positive secularism," says Father de Charentenay. "We don't want people to feel excluded." The Polish-inspired option is broad enough for non-Christians to identify with, he says.

Richard Prasquier agrees. A member of the executive committee of France's Representative Council of Jewish Institutions, he warns that mentioning only Christian values would fail to recognize the Jewish contribution to European culture.

"Islam is also an integral part of European history," says Tareq Oubrou, the imam of the Grand Mosque in Bordeaux, France. But whether Muslims feel at home in Europe has less to do with a document and more with how Muslims are able to integrate themselves into society and culture and at work, he says, adding: "The Christian reference does not scare me."

As the convention works to issue a final draft in June, other debates include how to divvy up political power between EU institutions and national governments, and how to distribute representation between larger and smaller states. The small EU members - dubbed "the seven dwarfs" - oppose a Franco-German move to create a post of EU president, who would serve five-year terms and represent the EU. The smaller nations want to protect the central role of the EU's executive office, the European Commission, which has ministers from even the smallest nations.

Material from the AP was used in this report.

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