Europe's Other Crisis: Religion

By Paul Ames

The press room podium in the European Union's headquarters is usually the domain of men in conservatively cut dark suits.

Last week however, the stage was a profusion of flowing robes, broad-brimmed fedoras, gleaming gold chains, turbans, ecclesiastical dog collars and a shimmering blue-grey sari, as the EU's leadership sought to take the continent's spiritual pulse at their annual meeting with religious representatives.

With its popularity battered in the midst of the economic crisis, the EU was seeking some solace and support.

"You the religious authorities, help us with your societal and spiritual contributions, to rediscover the enchantment of our European future and to rebuild the strength of our European soul," pleaded Herman Van Rompuy, the devout Catholic and former Belgian prime minister who presides over EU summits.

Europe's crisis goes beyond the economic, speakers at the meeting agreed.

Disillusioned citizens are questioning the values of European integration that have pushed nations of the post-war continent together for the past 60 years, rejecting traditional political parties to seek new and sometimes scary alternatives on the political margins.

"We have all spoken about a crisis that is much more profound than what we see in monetary and economic terms, there is a crisis in our society," said Metropolitan Emmanuel Adamakis, head of the Greek Orthodox Church in France.

The problem for many of the spiritual leaders attending is that Europe is also undergoing a crisis of religious identity. In several countries, church attendances and religious affiliation have plummeted in recent decades.

Just 51 percent of citizens in the EU's 27 nations said they believed in God, when questioned for a 2010 survey.

In Sweden, Estonia and the Czech Republic that number fell below 20 percent - although more said they believed in the existence of "some form of spirit or life force." Forty percent of the French declared they believed in neither god nor spirt, along with 30 percent of the Dutch, 27 percent of Germans and a quarter of the British.

In the 20 years up to 2010, the Evangelical Church of Germany, closed 340 churches and is considering giving up another 1,000, the news weekly Der Spiegel reported in February. Dutch churches are reportedly closing at a rate of two a week - around 4,000 remain from the estimated 19,000 built since the 13th century. From 1999 to 2010, the Church of Sweden says it lost 800,000 members.

Even in the traditionally more devout Catholic countries of southern Europe, faith is under pressure. A survey released in February showed 70 percent of Spaniards describe themselves as Catholic, a fall of almost 10 percent in a decade. Among Spanish Catholics just 12.5 percent attend mass at least once a week.

In comparison, 40 percent of Americans describe themselves as "very religious" and normally attend service at least once a week, according to a recent Gallup poll.

NATO officials worry a widening belief gap between religious America and an increasingly secular Europe could erode their sense of shared values, and combine with a growing divergence in defense spending and the new US focus on Asia to weaken the trans-Atlantic alliance.

One religion that is growing in Europe is Islam.

On average Muslims make up 3.8 percent of the population of the 27 nations of the EU, according to figures released by the Pew Research Center in December. An earlier Pew study predicted the Muslim population of 17 western European countries would grow from 4.5 percent in 2010 to 7.1 percent by 2030 due to immigration and a higher birthrate.

Churches abandoned for lack of congregations have been turned into mosques, as well as cafes, rock-climbing centers and private homes. That's a trend denounced by some some Christian conservative groups who warn of an emerging post-Christian Europe with growing tensions between religions.

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