What would Averroes, the great medieval philosopher who did so much to bring together Muslims, Christians and Jews in Southern Spain, make of the latest attempts to elevate Christianity to the status of Europe's official religion? As the apotheosis of an extraordinary 800 year period of peaceful religious co-existence, he might well be turning in his grave.

A growing number of groups in Europe are attempting to put 'God' or 'Christianity' at the centre of the forthcoming European Constitutional Treaty. This is at a time when the Union is at a crossroads, with an influx of new members and a shifting role within a globalised world. The Constitution is intended to provide a cohesive framework and unifying statement of values for a Union of over 25 states. And the Constitution must be agreed before the European elections in June 2004.

Gianfranco Fini, Italy's Deputy Prime Minister, has proposed a "community that shares a Judeo-Christian heritage as its fundamental values," a wording enthusiastically endorsed by the Pope.

Even more insistent are incoming states like Poland and Lithuania. There, Catholics make up 96 per cent and 80 per cent of the population respectively. They would like to see the new constitution reflect the words of the Polish one which underlines the values "of those who believe in God as the source of truth, justice, good and beauty," though it does go on to acknowledge as well the values of those "who do not share such a belief but respect these universal values arising from other sources."

Brendan Donnelly, Director of the Federal Trust, predicts that any references to the spiritual dimension of the EU will be very general. The discussion, he believes, is largely generated from the Christian Democrat wing of the Convention. The link between Christian moral values and European integration is a close one.

"Christian Democrats would see the EU as being both morally and culturally a distinctly more Christian way of organising international relations than the selfish and violent nationalism which preceded it," maintains Donnelly.

Labour MEP Glyn Ford disagrees: "Europe is not about religion. It is a much broader and deeper organisation of co-operation for mutual benefit."

Benefits of a quite different kind might be the more mundane reason for the churches' position. In Germany, a special relationship between Church and State means a 'religious tax' can be levied, while in other countries the Church has a privileged status such as the Greek Orthodox Church or the Lutheran Churches in Denmark and Finland. Fearful that homogenisation might eventually lead to the loss of their privileges, European churches demand a clause saying that the EU respects the status under national law of churches and religious communities.

The European Humanist Federation is against such a special status, saying that Declaration Eleven of the Treaty of Amsterdam, which states that the EU acknowledges the privileges accorded to churches and religious organisations by member states, is unacceptable in any European constitution.

Giving undue prominence to Christianity is perceived as potentially very divisive by those who argue that secularism in political institutions is the best guarantor for inter-faith dialogue, so badly needed in these turbulent times. They reject the argument of the churches — that Christianity has been the dominant influence on European civilisation. What of the hundreds of years before Christ when great civilisations contributed enormously to the development of the values we hold dear?

Linda McAvan, Deputy Leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party, has argued that a specific reference to Christianity "would offend those many millions of people of different faiths or no faith at all." She was backed by Louis Michel, the Belgian Foreign Minister, who thinks the EU should be inclusive. "Europe is not mono-religious," he said recently.

More worrying for secularists is the implied xenophobia of the demand from European bishops that a further article ensure the necessity of dialogue between churches and EU institutions. Such a mention is opposed by those who fear increasing church influence on political decision-making and think it is inappropriate to privilege one section of civil society over another in the democratic consultation process.

One possible consequence would be to prohibit the admission of non-Christian states such as Turkey into the EU. Not long ago the German conservative Wolfgang Schäuble told an audience: "Europe needs to be Christian, or it won't be at all!" Such comments indicate an outright rejection of a multi-faith and multicultural Union.

And this is the main concern of British MEPs who argue that since disestablishment is now favoured by a majority within the Church of England, it would be inappropriate to mention religion in the constitution's preamble.

Liberal Democrat MEP Graham Watson believes that the separation of Church and State was the major achievement of the Enlightenment. "We have incorporated the right to religious freedom in the Charter of Fundamental Rights — that is surely enough."

Maybe had more humanist or non-faith NGOs been aware of the threat of including Christian references in the treaty then their voices would have been heard earlier. For those who wish to enjoy freedom from religion, particularly in politics and economics, expressing that view to MEPs and relevant government ministers is a matter of urgency.

Ultimately EU-wide democracy requires a vibrant European civil society. One question the Convention has highlighted is the need for is a multi-faceted citizens' space. Without pan-European TV/radio channels and citizens' forums there can never be genuine, illuminating and informed debate about topics such as this one.

Egyptian film director Youssef Chaine has made a film of the life of Averroes. Perhaps a viewing in the environs of the convention should be organised for all participants to remind them of the multi-faith and non-faith legacy of the continent of Europe?