EU officials, religious leaders in Rome to find ways to combat terrorism

Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders and EU officials were gathering Thursday to explore how inter-religious dialogue can help combat terrorism and tensions from immigration while promoting peace in the Mediterranean and Middle East.

The European Union conference in Rome, which will include most EU interior ministers and union officials, opens in the Italian capital on Thursday. It is the first such meeting by EU ministers specifically touching on the issue.

The daylong conference was being chaired by Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu of Italy, which holds the EU rotating presidency. On Friday, the ministers will have an audience with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican.

The meeting opens against the backdrop of an EU-wide debate over whether to include a reference to God in the bloc's first-ever constitution. Many European nations, such as Italy, France and Germany, are also grappling with the impact of waves of immigrants of different religions.

"Europe is increasingly becoming a multiethnic, multiracial society, which every day must confront itself with the issues and problems caused by this new reality," the Italian Interior Ministry said in a statement ahead of the conference.

"The best tool we have to combat religious fanaticism is the dialogue among the moderates of the three great monotheistic religions," it said.

In Italy, an overwhelmingly Catholic nation, a judge's decision last week requiring a crucifix to be removed from a school has set off a furious reaction. The Vatican attacked the ruling and political parties denounced it as a defeat for religious freedom.

The judge's decision was made after an Islamic activist, Adel Smith, petitioned the court, concerned by the crucifix in his sons' elementary school in a small town in central Italy.

The controversy highlighted Italy's unwillingness to abandon its Catholic roots, as well as its sometimes awkward relationship with a growing immigrant population.

France, meanwhile, has been embroiled in a growing controversy over whether the Islamic headscarf can be worn in public schools or by civil servants. And in Germany, a Muslim schoolteacher was blocked from employment because she wears a headscarf. Her case went to the nation's highest court, but an inconclusive ruling this year only spurred debate.

"There are 20 million Muslims in Europe," effectively constituting European Islam, said an Italian Islamic theologian, Abdolwahhab Pallavicini. "We need to spell out the (common) origins in Abraham" that the three faiths have in common, he said.

Europe has found itself highly divided in the past months over whether to have a mention of Europe's Judeo-Christian roots in the EU constitution, which is now up for a final round of talks.

Italy and Spain, as well as Poland, which will join the EU in May, have supported Vatican appeals in favor of an explicit reference.

Some nations, including Germany, Portugal and the Netherlands, have said they had no problems with including the reference, while others, led by France, have opposed it.

The text's preamble now contains a very vague reference to Christianity's past, merely saying Europe draws "inspiration from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance ... still present in its heritage."

Religious leaders attending the conference include Charlotte Knobloch, the leader of the Jewish community in Munich, Germany, and the deputy leader of the Central Council of German Jews; Dalil Boubakeur, president of the French Council of the Muslim Cult, a body representing various Muslim groups in France, and rector of the Mosque of Paris; the Anglican bishop of St. Albans, the Right Rev. Christopher Herbert, and Antonio Canizares Llovera, Catholic archbishop of Toledo, Spain.