Sat, Dec 04, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Europe prepares for deep schism over secularism

KEEPING THE FAITH Some analysts say the domination of liberal secular views among the EU's elite is part of an attack on religious beliefs


From the committee rooms of Vienna to the classrooms of Paris, from the streets of Amsterdam to the chapels of Rome, battle is being joined over God's place in the new Europe.

In disputes about the EU Constitution and commissioners and the right to parade religious affiliations in public, secularists have the upper hand.

But a backlash is predicted.

The schism opened during the writing of the new constitution. Despite the protests of at least eight of the 25 member states and lobbying by the Vatican, the text finds no place for Christianity and its role in shaping Europe, just a bland formula referring to the "cultural, religious, and humanist inheritance."

This is one of several successes chalked up by secularism, indicators perhaps of the cultural divide between the new Europe and US President George W. Bush's America, where religious and moral values are seen to have played a key role in the Republican election victory.

Michael Mertes, a speechwriter for Helmut Kohl when he was chancellor of Germany, and a former editor of the liberal, Catholic newspaper Rheinischer Merkur, says: "Given the different national traditions in the EU, rigid secularism has become a lowest common denominator."

The new commission led by Jose Manuel Barroso stumbled when the liberals and secularists dominating the parliament took exception to the arguably reactionary views on women and gays of the Italian nominee Rocco Buttiglione.

From Spain to Poland a new secularist ascendancy is sweeping all before it. In Spain, Jose Luis Zapatero's Socialist government is seeking to roll back the influence of the Catholic church. France, Europe's secular citadel, has banned Muslim headscarves in state schools.

In the Netherlands, a new breed of populist and militant secularists has emerged, personified by the assassinated Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh, paradoxically dedicated to defending secularism and tolerance through increasingly intolerant views and policies, particularly on Islam and immigration.

In deeply Catholic Poland, there is widespread fear that EU membership will bring godless bureaucrats from Brussels bent on denying the Poles the most restrictive abortion laws in the EU.

And in Austria, where more than 90 percent are nominally Catholic but where fewer than 12 percent regularly attend mass, the Christian right seems to have lost a constitutional fight for God.

The governing party, the Christian Democrats, wanted a preamble stressing the centrality of Christianity. It has been scaled down to a reference to "the Creation," and the Social Democrats and the Greens want it scrapped altogether.

But if the secularists are currently winning all the battles, many experts fear they may yet lose the war, not least because of the growing influence in the EU of the new east European states, inoculated by communism against too much church bashing.

Even the Czech Republic, which can lay claim to being the least religious country in Europe, wanted God in the EU Constitution. And the admission of 10 countries in May pushed the Catholic population, nominally at least, to almost 60 percent.

"For Poland," says Aleksander Smolar, head of a Warsaw think-tank, "this extreme secularism dominating life in the EU is completely indefensible."

At a recent meeting of European intellectuals in Vienna, Jozsef Szajer, deputy head of the main Hungarian opposition party, reacted bitterly to the Buttiglione humiliation.

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