Europe talks with faiths it once thought would fade

Tue Dec 29, 2009 1:24pm EST
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By Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor

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."   Continued...

<p>Participants sing religious songs as they arrive to take part in the European Meeting of Young Christians at Targi Poznanskie in Poznan December 29, 2009. About 30,000 people from Europe and other continents will gather for the meeting, which is organised by the Taize Community and is usually held in one of Europe's major cities. The meeting, which will run from December 29, 2009 to January 2, 2010, was organized in response to the invitation of the archbishop and ecumenical leaders of Poznan. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel</p>