European Commission president José Manuel Barroso has praised the role of Christianity in promoting European unification, and has appealed to religions to strengthen the values on which the unity of the continent is based - writes Stephen Brown for ENI.
"A union that is reduced to its economic and geographic dimensions alone would lack unity," Barroso, who heads the executive arm of the 27-nation EU, told the Third European Ecumenical Assembly meeting in Sibiu, Romania, on 6 September.
"Your churches and confessional communities can contribute, and make a real contribution, to a better understanding between people through promoting mutual respect in a context of shared values," said Barroso in front of more than 2000 participants from all of Europe's main Christian traditions.
Asked at a media conference, however, whether the new EU treaty should contain a specific reference to the continent's Christian heritage, as some church leaders have demanded, Barroso said his grouping had to respect all citizens equally, whatever their religion.
"Christianity is obviously part of our great heritage in Europe. This is a historical fact," said the EC president. "But it is also true that Europe is made up of diversity. We have many Muslims and we also have many people who have no religion at all."
He added, "What would be wrong is to pretend that religion does not exist in our society. That would be a big mistake."
In his assembly speech, Barroso described Christianity as having been a force for unity in Europe throughout the centuries. At the same time, he added, Europe was now increasingly becoming a continent of many peoples, many cultures and many religions.
"Respect for diversity, openness to others and tolerance is firmly rooted in European culture. It is our trade mark," said Barroso. "But this respect for diversity is based on the respect of deeper values that Europe must never be allowed to betray: freedom of expression, freedom of religion and freedom of creative values."
Barroso praised the assembly organizers for holding the meeting in Romania, which with its neighbour Bulgaria became part of the EU on 1 January, and had, he said, a long history as a meeting place of different peoples and cultures.
He also praised the initiative that led to the first European Ecumenical Assembly in Basel, Switzerland in 1989, which brought together Christians from eastern and Western Europe at a time when the Iron Curtain still divided the continent.
The Sibiu assembly ended on 9 September and was an initiative of the Conference of European Churches and the Council of European (Roman Catholic) Bishops' Conferences. The two groupings account for most of Europe's Roman Catholic, Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox churches. In addition to the Basel gathering, an assembly also took place in Graz, Austria in 1997.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International  is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]