Europe′s New Age of Enlightenment? | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 28.04.2004
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Europe's New Age of Enlightenment?

With the 10 new EU member states, the religious map of Europe is also changing dramatically, bringing aboard Catholics, the Orthodox Church and Protestants. What role do churches play in these countries today?

Catholic and Orthodox clerics at a mass in Aachen, Germany

Catholic and Orthodox clerics at a mass in Aachen, Germany

Along with Malta, Poland is an exception in the European Union: 95 percent of its citizens belong to the Catholic Church, and about half go to church services regularly on Sundays. Poland is the biggest of the new member states, and it will add millions of devout Catholics to the EU's population. But not everyone in Poland see that as a positive development -- many representatives of the church stood against Warsaw's entry into the EU. They feared the Western-atheist and secular tendencies of the EU could force undesired changes in a staunchly Catholic society.

"The Catholic religion is one for the poor people," said Magdalena Loniak, a Polish student. "But that's going to change when the people have a higher quality of life. Then they'll be forced to become less devout."

There's plenty of anecdotal evidence to back up that claim through the experiences of other countries that have previously joined the EU. Just call it "political market forces."

More wealth, less religion?

Both Spain and Portugal are fundamentally Catholic countries. But since they joined the EU in 1986, both have seen a drop in the importance of religious life in their societies.

Osterprozession in Sevilla

Its not what you think: These hooded penitents are actually Spanish Catholics

Drawing analogies from Spain and Portugal's membership with the current enlargement, however, is like comparing apples and oranges. There's a major difference this time around: The new members, with the exceptions of Malta and Cyprus, are all countries of the former Eastern Bloc. In these areas, churches were often oppressed under Communist regimes, and believers were persecuted. Rather than serving to drive people away from the church, however, state-supported oppression brought people closer to religion. Even today they have a tremendous sense of loyalty.

"What we experienced during the past 50 years was the spontaneous and selfless activities of the church as well as the pleasure Christians got in taking the risk (of going to church)," said Hungarian religious scholar András Máte-Tóth. Those tight relations haven't changed in the run-up to EU membership. Indeed, Slovenia and Poland have fought vociferously for the word "God" to be written into the draft of Europe's first constitution. And in spite of reservations from the EU, Poland has also kept its rigid anti-abortion laws on the books.

Slovenia, Slovakia and Lithuania also have Catholic majority populations. The only countries of the new member states with Protestant majorities are Estonia and Latvia.

In some countries, state oppression of the church as well as massive secular indoctrination programs, like that in East Germany, led to a situation where only a minority of the population practiced religion.

A return to church pews?

In a joint study, Máte-Tóth and academic Paul Zulehner found that the Czech Republic was the least Christian region in Europe -- along with eastern Germany. Walter Schwimmer, general secretary of the Council of Europe, said he believes it plausible that EU membership could actually lead to an upsurge in church activity in some of the member states where religion languished or even suffocated under Communism. In a somewhat flawed comparison, Schwimmer points to Albania in the Balkans. "Albania was the world's first atheist state," he notes. But today the country is dominated by Islam.

The only religious certainty about accession is that Europe's about to become more pluralistic. But that's not to say religious diversity didn't already exist in the existing EU states.

Diodoros, Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem

Diodoros I, Greek Orthodox Patriarch

If you go purely by the numbers, most EU citizens are Catholic. Several countries like Denmark and Sweden are almost 100 percent Protestant. Greece, meanwhile, is an almost entirely Orthodox nation. An equal number are totally heterogeneous: Germany and France are home to several million Muslims each. The United Kingdom is also home to sizable Hindu and Sikh populations. The relationship between church and state also varies greatly among the existing EU members. "In Britain, for example, the queen is the official head of the state church, the Anglican church," said Schwimmer. "Then, there's France, which is a secular state. Germany and Austria also have a totally different church-state relationship."

Future members to bring religious diversity

The next wave of EU accession, expected in 2007, will bring with it a raft of members of the Orthodox church who represent the majority of people Bulgaria and Romania. In Romania, most baptisms outside the Orthodox Church are barely recognized, says Corina Golgorziu, a student who is also a baptized Orthodox. Though Romania has much progress still to be made on the religious anti-discrimination front, Golgoriziu believes the country's eventual membership in the EU could have an eye-opening effect on its people "that there are other religions in Europe."

Türken in Deutschland Moschee in Berlin Gebet

Muslims praying during the month of Ramadan

That could have a domino effect on Turkey if it eventually becomes a member. With its membership, the overwhelmingly Muslim Turkey would also bring about a tectonic shift to Europe's religious map.

But European leaders believe they are up to the challenge that new diversity will bring.

Prodi: We're building a pluralist Europe

"As we build the new, enlarged Europe, we cannot marginalize religions and the movements that have played a part in European integration and Europe's cultural development and that are showing renewed interest and desire for dialogue with the Union's institutions," European Commission President Romano Prodi said in a 2003 speech. "Acknowledging this heritage does not send a message of rejection or inclusion. Europe's true strength lies in its capacity to mix and blend vastly different influences and cultures. How can we leave Christianity, Judaism and Islam out of the picture in the open, pluralist Europe we want to build?"

In a recent policy paper, the EU suggested consulting regularly with the major churches represented in the Union when legislation that concerns them is being considered. That, perhaps, would give churches a voice in legislative debates over controversial issues like the pro life vs. pro-abortion debate, therapeutic and reproductive cloning and the commercialization of stem cell lines. But it could also help unify the churches in a region whose history has been marked time and time again by religious rifts.

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