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PARIS (Reuters Life!) - Europe, the most secularized region on Earth, has decided to launch a regular dialogue with the organized religions that many on the continent once thought would wither away.
In a little-noticed article of its Lisbon Treaty, which went into effect on December 1, the European Union agreed to hold an "open, transparent and regular dialogue" with churches, religious associations and secular groups.
What this dialogue will look like is not yet clear, but the fact the European Union has agreed to it reflects the evolving role of religion in a region where it is often overlooked.
"Something has happened in the religious culture of Europe," said Joseph Maila, a French political scientist whose new job -- head of the religious affairs section of the French Foreign Ministry's Policy Planning Office -- is another sign of change.
"Countries that were heading for a stricter separation of church and state, as in France, are now more open to religion while countries where the state was not completely separate from religion are introducing more separation," he told Reuters.
To illustrate this change, Maila recalled how in 1999 France opposed any mention of Europe's Christian roots in an EU Charter of Fundamental Rights agreed the next year. The final text spoke of Europe's "cultural, religious and humanist inheritance."
The issue returned in negotiations for the EU's ill-fated constitution, when then Pope John Paul and several traditionally Catholic states tried again to get a reference to Christianity.
"France took a very strong position at the time against countries such as Italy, Poland and Ireland," said Maila. "They succeeded in blocking this, but now it's 10 years later and look how things have changed."
The change stems from a specific date -- Sept 11, 2001 -- but it took a while before Europe grasped that those attacks in New York and Washington shattered a widespread belief that faith was a private matter due to wither away in modern societies.
Many countries discovered that Islam was now, in numerical terms, their second religion. Deadly bombings in Madrid and London, the killing of a Dutch filmmaker and unrest among Muslim youths in France raised concern about Islamist violence.
At the same time, the shrinking Roman Catholic Church -- Europe's largest -- started acting more like the minority it had become, speaking out openly on public policy. Other churches and faiths joined in the discussion and lobbying in Brussels.
In another development, some French questioned strict secularism, which Muslims saw as hostile to Islam, while the British and Dutch had doubts about their hands-off "multicultural" policy that spawned ethnic ghettos.
"I can see a kind of rapprochement going on between countries that had very strict separation and those that were more communitarian," Maila said.
In this new atmosphere, the Lisbon Treaty's Article 17 creating the EU's dialogue with faith leaders aroused little interest beyond groups like Britain's National Secularist Society, which said it gave the Vatican "arm-twisting status."
But religious groups noticed it and opened or boosted their representations in Brussels. Catholic bishops across Europe cited it to support ratification of the Lisbon Treaty.
Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christians have been discussing how to coordinate their lobbying efforts.
Thomas Pickartz of COMECE, the Catholic bishops' European commission, told Vatican Radio that social and family questions, treatment of refugees and bioethics were issues where "we can contribute something to the values of the EU."
Perhaps the biggest change is in France, where President Nicolas Sarkozy has brought some flexibility to official secularism since his election in 2007.
Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, one of the original "French doctors" caring for victims of Third World wars and catastrophes, knew from first-hand experience how important religions could be in conflicts and peace-making.
"He thought French diplomacy was not well prepared for this," Maila said. "One cannot deal any more with international relations the old-fashioned way, just knowing how many weapons you have, how many fighters, tanks and ships and how much GDP."
The six-strong religious affairs section, launched last summer, gathers information on trends in religion and their links to political conflicts or controversies and draws up policy proposals for the ministry.
It also consults with counterparts in other European foreign ministries, some of whom were surprised to see secular France take an interest in religious issues.
But Maila stresses the new section does not mean France has given up on its trademark secularism known as "laicite."
"Laicite is a set of rules regulating church-state relations inside of France," he said. "We are collecting information and monitoring religion abroad."