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Sunday, May 16, 2004

God's Place in Charter Is Dividing Europeans

By ELAINE SCIOLINO

ARIS, May 25 - As the Europeans haggle over the final wording of their first constitution, they are bedeviled by a three-letter word: God.

Mind-numbing arguments over budget rules and weighted voting can be delegated to technocrats. The issue of whether the most ambitious document in European Union history should include a reference to the Continent's Christian heritage is different, an emotional, theological wrangle over the meaning of culture, history and faith.

"Of course, we have a Judeo-Christian past, but the constitution is inspired by a heritage that is cultural, religious and humanist all at once," Michel Barnier, France's new foreign minister, said after a news conference at the Foreign Ministry on Tuesday. He made clear that France would not bend to new pressure to inject religion into the draft, noting that the constitution should be "secular." The current wording, he added, is "well balanced."

But with the entry of 10 new members into Europe this month, many of them predominantly Catholic, positions have hardened.

The one issue European officials seem to agree on is that there will probably be no agreement on religion before a June 17 summit meeting in Brussels, where the constitution is scheduled to be completed.
Last Friday, the foreign ministers of seven of the 25 European Union member countries, including two old members (Italy and Portugal) and five new ones (Poland, Lithuania, Malta, Slovakia and the Czech Republic), sent a brief letter to Ireland, the current holder of the European Union presidency, calling for a last-minute conversion.

"The issue remains a priority for our governments" and "for millions of European citizens," the letter said.
The letter urged "a reference to the Christian roots of Europe," adding in less than perfect English: "The amendment we ask for is aimed to recognize a historical truth. We do not want to disregard neither the secular nature of the European institutions nor the respect of any other religious or philosophical belief."
Granted, the seven may have meant no disrespect. But they know well that Pope John Paul II is firmly on their side. Earlier this month, the 83-year-old pope welcomed the accession of the 10 new member states to the European Union and underlined the Christian values on which the group's unity was based.
At a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday, the group of seven issued the text of their letter to their colleagues.

"We are not talking about a reference to Christian values, but to Christian traditions - hence to a historical fact that no one can change," the Polish foreign minister, Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, said at a news conference in Brussels.

The week before, Italy's foreign minister, Franco Frattini, said that all that the seven were asking for was "a small inclusion in the text" that "would not alter the preamble too much."
But other governments have insisted that the preamble of the current draft treaty goes far enough. In its present form, it states that the European Union draws "inspiration from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe."

Apparently in a gesture to Europe's Muslims and Jews, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw of Britain warned at the Brussels meeting on Monday against singling out religious tradition.

"If we were to go down the road of making specific reference to one religious tradition, we have to bear in mind other religious traditions and reference to them as well within Europe," he told reporters.
In his comments Tuesday, Mr. Barnier agreed, saying that the current wording reflected Europe's "pluralism."

Spain, meanwhile, which had argued vociferously for the God-and-Christianity position, abruptly shifted sides when the Socialists swept aside the center-right Popular Party in general elections in March.
The text, Spain's new foreign minister, Miguel Ángel Moratinos, told RFI radio on Monday, "is perfect." He added, "Spain is a Catholic country, but at the same time I believe that in this European constitution our government is rather secular, and in this sense we want to respect the text as it currently stands."
Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer of Germany pointed the finger at others. His own government, he told reporters on Monday, is willing to compromise, but several member states "are not prepared to go beyond" the current draft. As a result, he said, "I dare to prophesy that we will have an unchanged situation on this point."

Mr. Barnier, by contrast, declined to play prophet, saying, "When we speak of God, we should never say never."

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