ROME – Their countries grappling with tension over immigration, the political heads of Europe’s police forces met Thursday with Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders, new allies in their battle against terrorism and other violence.
Religion and immigration issues have increasingly formed the backdrop for social and political disputes in Europe, and the European Union meeting of interior ministers and religious leaders, organized by Italy, reflected a growing awareness of that problem.
“We don’t want migration to become a sort of concern as far as security” goes, Antonio Vitorino, the EU’s commissioner for justice and home affairs, told reporters.
Predominantly Catholic Italy is in the middle of a difficult debate over whether crucifixes should be removed from public schools. Two other traditionally Christian nations, France and Germany, are wrestling with the question of whether women wearing Islamic headscarves challenge their secular societies.
Politicians throughout Europe are also divided over whether the EU’s new constitution should refer to the continent’s Judeo-Christian roots.
“There is growing fear of immigration in Europe,” Italy’s interior minister, Giuseppe Pisanu, said. “We fear for our security, for our identity, for our jobs and social stability.”
The latest statistics show Italy’s population is growing thanks to its immigrants, including hundreds of thousands of Muslims.
In Germany, the number of Jewish immigrants, mainly from Eastern Europe, has tripled in the last 10 years, corresponding to a backlash against anti-Semitism, Charlotte Knobloch, leader of Munich’s Jewish community, told the gathering.
Referring to the debate over Europe’s new constitution, Knobloch called reference to God “essential to avoid the rebirth of totalitarian regimes.”
Pisanu said immigrants who are shunted to the margins of Western society might turn toward terrorism.
A Muslim leader at the conference warned against the risk of what he called “Islam-phobia.”
“It is up to Europe to affirm its strong choice for a modern Islam, one that doesn’t impose its values on Europe but which is tolerant,” said Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Mosque of Paris and president of the French council of the Muslim religion.
An Italian Islamic theologian, Abdolwahhab Pallavicini, lamented on the eve of the gathering that some Islamic groups feel forced to add the word “religious” to their names to distinguish themselves from Islamic organizations whose followers embrace violence or other extremism.
Turkey, an overwhelmingly Muslim nation which aspires to join the EU, sent State Minister Mehmet Aydin, who said Turkey’s entrance in the EU could play a role in easing tensions over Muslim immigrants.
“The great population of Muslims in Europe would feel more at home” with Turkey in the EU, Aydin told The Associated Press.
EU officials, saying Turkey’s record on human rights needs more improvement, have yet to set a date for formal talks aimed at membership.
Conference participants also included an Anglican bishop, a Catholic archbishop from Spain and a Greek Orthodox bishop. On Friday, the interior ministers will meet with Pope John Paul II.