Does God Matter? European Union debates

As it seeks to unite,EU is split between mostly secular Western Europe and its religious members to the East. Now its bid to be religiously neutral is inviting charges of an anti-Christian agenda

Written by New York Times | Bratisilava (slovakia) | Published:July 2, 2013 5:10 am

Stanislav Zvolensky,the Roman Catholic archbishop of the Slovak capital here,was thrilled when he was invited to Brussels three years ago to discuss the fight against poverty with the insistently secular bureaucracy of the

European Union.

“They let me in wearing my cross,” the archbishop recalled.

It therefore came as a rude surprise when,late last year,the National Bank of Slovakia announced that the European Commission,the Union’s executive arm,had ordered it to purge halos and crosses from special commemorative Euro coins due to be minted this summer.

The coins were intended to celebrate the 1,150th anniversary of Christianity’s arrival in Slovak lands but have instead become tokens of the faith’s retreat from contemporary Europe.

“There is a movement in the EU that wants total religious neutrality,” said Zvolensky. In a continent divided by a multitude of languages,vast differences of culture and yawning economic gaps,the archbishop said that centuries of Christianity provide a rare common denominator. Instead,religion has become a source of discord. It divides mostly secular western Europe from profoundly religious nations in the east like Poland and those in

between like Slovakia.

All of which leaves the European Commission under attack from all sides,denounced by atheists for even its timid engagement with religion and by nationalist Christian fundamentalists as an agent of Satan.

Asked about such criticism,Katharina von Schnurbein,the commission official responsible for outreach to both religious and secular groups,smiled and said,“I can assure you that the European Commission is not the Antichrist.”

Europe is suffused with Christianity. The landscape is dotted with churches,now mostly empty,and monasteries,its universities are rooted in religious scholarship,and many of its national crests and anthems pay homage to God.

Even the EU’s flag—a circle of 12 yellow stars on a blue background—has a coded Christian message. Arsène Heitz,a French Catholic who designed the flag in 1955,drew inspiration from Christian iconography of the Virgin Mary wearing a crown with 12 stars. The same 12 stars appear on all Euro coins.

Throughout its modern history,however,the ‘European project’,as the continent’s current faltering push for unity is known,has sought to keep religion at arm’s length. The 1951 Treaty of Rome and other founding texts of what is today the EU make no mention of God or Christianity. The Brussels bureaucracy,in its official account of Heitz’s religion-tinged flag,says the 12 stars “symbolise the ideal of unity,solidarity and harmony among the people of Europe”.

“There is a general feeling that anything religious should be kept out of the public sphere,” said Gudrun Kugler,director of the Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians,a Vienna-based group. This affects all religions but is particularly strong against Christianity because of a view that “Christianity dominated unfairly for centuries”,she added.

Von Schnurbein dismissed accusations of an anti-Christian agenda. The EU,she said,“deals with people of faith and also people of no faith”. The commission’s Monetary and Economic Affairs Department that ordered Slovakia to redesign its commemorative Euro coins says it had no real problem itself with halos and crosses and demanded that they be deleted in the interest of “religious diversity”.

Leading the charge was France,which enforces a rigid division of church and state at home,and objected to Christian symbols appearing on Slovak money that would also be legal tender in France.

For the EU’s most strident critics,the flap has been a godsend,buttressing their argument that Brussels is an alien,meddling and sinister force. “The EU is under the control of Satan,” said Rafael Rafaj of the Slovak National Party.

The view that the EU serves Satan has become a popular theme for some extreme Christian fundamentalists,who cite the Bible’s Book of Revelation as proof that dissolving national boundaries signals an approaching apocalypse.

The Brussels bureaucratic apparatus is “uncomfortable with religion”,said Lucian Leustean,a scholar at Aston University in Britain. This is partly due to the rise of well-organised secular groups that pounce on any hint that Christians are being favoured. But a bigger reason,said Leustean,is a shift in public attitudes.

Church attendance is falling across Europe; the continent’s fastest-growing faith is now Islam. In Britain,according to a poll last year,more people believe in extraterrestrials than in God. In the EU,according to a 2010 survey,around half the population believes in God,compared with over 90 per cent in the US.

Zvolensky of Bratislava does see one encouraging sign: Slovakia’s national bank has decided to stick with its original coin design and abandon plans for a halo-free minting. The European Commission has gone along with this.

Athens protests at plans for a mosque

Athens: Athens has not had a formal mosque since Greece won independence from the Ottomans in 1832,and has come under fire by human rights groups for being one of the few European capitals without one. However,plan to build a state-funded mosque,more than a century in the making,has split the country.

Soon after the government launched a tender in May to build the mosque,the far-right Golden Dawn party—the third-most popular in the country—pledged to “fight (it) until the bitter end”. One local bishop,Seraphim,took the matter to Greece’s highest administrative court.

The mosque’s critics say Athens,kept afloat by an international bailout,cannot spare the almost one million Euros it will cost.

Local media say the new mosque,which will hold about 400 worshippers,will not have a minaret so as to blend in and not resemble a mosque.

Analysts say it could help Greece as it tries to lure foreign investment from cash-rich Gulf Arab states. Stavros Kalogiannis,the former development minister,however,denied there was external pressure to build the mosque.

“Athens needs a mosque because there are Muslims living here—that’s why,” Athens Mayor Yiorgos Kaminis,a leftist,said. “You buy a maisonette in (the Athens suburb of) Chalandri and it costs 500,000 Euros,and the country can’t afford to build a mosque?” he asked. “It’s not about money. I didn’t see us doing anything when we had money.” Reuters

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