Is Europe a Christian continent?

Unquestionably, the region is steeped in Christianity from the faith's earliest days. The Apostle Paul brought the religion to Europe's shores around A.D. 50. Later, the continent became the center of Roman Catholicism and the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation.

But that was then and this is now. Today's Europe is a multiethnic melting pot of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and other faiths — making the question a ticklish one as churches lobby for a mention of the continent's Christian heritage in a key document on the future of the European Union.

The Convention on the Future of the European Union is being negotiated in Brussels, Belgium, and is scheduled for completion by 2004, in time for the EU to accept as many as 10 new nations, including a half-dozen from the formerly communist East bloc. Mostly Muslim Turkey is expected to join later.

The convention could become the groundwork for a constitution that would replace the EU's founding treaty, so some Christians see this moment as a rare opportunity to enshrine the continent's religious heritage in the document's preamble.

"It's not an attack on the separation of church and state," said Keith Jenkins, associate general secretary of the Brussels-based Conference of European Churches, which is leading the effort. "It's a recognition of history."

Civil libertarians contend it's simply inappropriate to highlight Christianity in a modern, pluralistic society that some theologians have described as "post-Christian," even though more than three in four Europeans still consider themselves Christian. Such concerns kept any mention of religion out of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights drafted two years ago.

"The EU must resist pressure to include religion of any kind in its constitutional declarations," Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of Britain's National Secular Society, said in an interview.

"Europe embraces those of many faiths, and of no faith. Promoting any one faith as pre-eminent will inevitably lead sooner or later to resentment."

Exactly what shape a recognition of Christianity would take still isn't clear, but Jenkins said, "No one is suggesting that the preamble to a European constitution should be turned into a theological treatise.

"What's most important is that there's a discussion about values — that we see Europe in terms of values, not just policies. Churches and religious communities have a role to play in contributing to the broader public debate."

Christians of multiple denominations have rallied behind the cause. The Conference of European Churches has a broad membership that includes many mainstream Protestant faiths and a number of national evangelical associations.

Pope John Paul II has joined the fray, too, during a visit late last month to Bulgaria. He called the message of Christianity "relevant even to those who, in the field of politics, are working to bring about European unification."

"In searching for its own identity, the continent cannot but return to its Christian roots," the pope said.

Back at the Vatican, John Paul pressed his case further, saying: "The Christian patrimony of civilization, which has contributed so greatly to the defense of the values of democracy, freedom and solidarity among the peoples of Europe, must neither vanish nor be disregarded."

Jenkins, who directs the conference's Church and Society Commission, concedes there's fierce opposition from political leaders in France, which is doggedly committed to church-state separation. Former French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin led his nation's effort to keep religious references out of the rights charter in 2000.

The concept also has been criticized in countries such as Sweden, where years of government support of the state church have soured some citizens on the idea of mixing religion with politics. The Swedes separated church and state just two years ago.

"But Europe's Christian heritage is a historical fact, and it's an important one," Jenkins said. "Peace, justice, reconciliation, solidarity, sustainability: These are values that are shared by many Europeans — values that are found at the heart of the Christian gospel."

Secularists and civil libertarians remain unconvinced. Many fear a reference to Christian heritage could become a pretext to an extension of church influence over EU policies.

"The only way to ensure that all of Europe's citizens feel equally valued is to leave religion out of its pronouncements and to secularize its structure and workings," Porteous Wood said.