By Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor
PARIS (Reuters) - European Union leaders assured senior religious figures on Monday they would defend the freedom of belief in the Middle East as part of their support for the spread of democracy in the Arab world.
European Commission President Jose Barroso told 20 Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist leaders at an annual consultation in Brussels that the EU aimed to promote democracy and human rights.
Several of the Christian representatives present expressed concern about religious freedom in the mostly Muslim Arab world, which has seen more freedom of speech in recent months but also more violent attacks on Christian minorities in some countries.
Barroso said the changes in the Arab world were "of historic proportions" and compared the challenge of anchoring democracy there to the task the EU found in post-communist Europe.
"I strongly believe these challenges cannot be met without the active contribution of the religious communities," Barroso told the meeting. Democratic rights included freedom of religion and belief, he stressed.
European Council President Herman Van Rompuy said "there is no contradiction between Islam and democracy. This period of openness must be maintained after the revolutions and religious and other minorities must be respected."
Rotterdam Bishop Adrianus van Luyn, head of the COMECE commission of Roman Catholic bishops conferences in the EU, said the progress and stability the EU sought in the Arab world would depend on an improved relationship between religions there.
"This requires freedom for all faiths, an end to the discrimination of smaller religious communities and the participation of moderate forces in the construction of society," he said.
In recent months, Arab Christians and Muslims have both prayed together and clashed, he said. "Religious differences have often been manipulated or even whipped up on purpose," he said. "The role of the different regimes in this is unclear."
Warsaw Cardinal Kazimierz Nycz said Christians in Europe were watching events in the Arab world "with hope, but also with fear for the future of those societies."
"Repeated attacks on Christian communities are additional reasons for concern," he said. "If one day the Christian communities in the Middle East disappeared ... moderate Muslims would lose their natural partners."
Germany's top Protestant leader, Nikolaus Schneider, said the EU should help foster diversity in the Middle East.
"Pluralism is not a curse word, it's necessary for the existence of a free and democratic society," said Schneider, chairman of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) umbrella group of Protestant churches.