Religion in Europe, also in crisis


BRUSSELS, Belgium — 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.

Such fears have been highlighted by attacks against 11 mosques around Britain following the killing of soldier Lee Rigby by two suspected Islamist extremists in London.

Campaign groups warn of an increase in Islamophobic and anti-Semitic hate crime in some countries is linked to the declining economy. "The ... economic crisis, which has nurtured the neo-Nazi cause, may endure or worsen," said a report from the World Jewish Congress last month. "We must be prepared for all eventualities."

While violence and tensions have captured headlines, the imams, bishops and rabbis meeting in Brussels accentuated the positive, pointing to religious groups working together to overcome division.

"There is a movement slowly but surely towards resolving these issues," said Syed Ali Abbas, a Shia Muslim representative. "In Europe there is a trend which is moving Jewish, Muslim, Christians and other religions to come together."

In countries hardest hit by the crisis, rising poverty and declining government resources have given religions an enhanced role as providers of basic needs.

"In Spain, Greece, Cyprus, the social services of churches have increased drastically," explains Rev. Rudiger Noll, associate general secretary of Council of European Churches. "If you see how many soup kitchens are offered, it's an unprecedented amount of food that is given out. People are turning to churches for charity."

The Catholic relief agency Caritas said it provided help to 88,000 people in Portugal during the first half of last year, an increase of 64 percent on the same period of 2011. The Orthodox Church in the Greek capital Athens has 3,000 volunteers handing out more than 10,000 food packages a day.

Noll says it's too early to say if such charity or the search for spiritual guidance in a crisis will lead Europeans to return to religion.

In Spain, which keeps monthly figures, that does not seem the case. The number describing themselves as non-believers rose to 16.5 percent from 12.7 percent in 2008.

Despite such numbers, Noll does not see Europe sliding away from religion. In an interview he says organizations from trade unions and political parties to sports clubs are also seeing a membership decline as citizens question entrenched institutions. Beyond that, he says, their underlying spirituality endures.

"Religiosity is not declining. It's relations with the institutional type of church that is declining ... this is the challenge for our churches, they have to open up to modernity and talk to people in today's language if they do not want numbers to decrease."

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