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Europe debates God's place in new constitution

A divine reference is among the most contentious issues as delegates reconvene this month.

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As Europe works to remake itself as a single entity, the idea of a divine entity may get left out.

The European Union is debating whether God has a place in its new constitution. The issue is among the most divisive among the constitutional convention's 105 delegates, who reconvene later this month.

The debate pits conservatives against socialists, and sets strongly secular countries like France and Belgium against nations like Poland and Ireland that have stronger religious identification.

The issue goes to the heart of what it means to be a European in an increasingly diverse and expanding continent that may one day include Muslim Turkey.

How the question of religion is handled could have serious legal implications once the EU's constitutional text comes into force, officials say, possibly influencing the outcome of future court rulings on such issues as euthanasia, abortion rights, and human cloning. "This debate is not just an academic one," says EU spokesman Jonathan Faull. "In 10 years', 15 or 100 years' time, it could have important implications in interpreting the text."

A reference to a Christian God will strengthen European identity, say the idea's supporters. "Europe as a whole is based on a Christian heritage," says Elmar Brok, a European deputy from Germany, who chairs the caucus of the conservative European People's Party (PPE) at the convention.

Opponents argue that such a reference would be, in the view of socialist French deputy Olivier Duhamel, "absurd," because it would exclude Muslims and others of non-Christian faiths, as well as citizens who do not believe in God.

More than 80 amendments have been proposed for an article on European values where religion would be included. At the other end of the spectrum, amendments by socialists call for "a guarantee of the separation of church and state."

The Vatican and Orthodox and Protestant churches have heavily lobbied the convention to include a reference to the Continent's Christian heritage.

Pierre de Charentenay, a Jesuit priest who works for a bishops' group that promotes Catholic interests at the EU, says a religious mention "is important for countries like Germany or Italy, which already mention Christianity in their own constitution." The charters of EU members Ireland and Greece, and those of Poland and Slovakia, set to join the EU next year, refer to God or a Christian heritage.

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