The European Commission and the Commemorative Euro Coin

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Cyril and Methodius with halos and crosses, and without

Andrew Higgins, in one of the cover stories of today’s New York Times, reports how the European Commission ordered the National Bank of Slovakia to remove halos and crosses from a commemorative euro coin to be minted this summer (“A More Secular Europe, Divided by the Cross“).

The coins are a celebration of Christianity’s arrival in Slovak lands by the evangelizing Byzantine Greek brothers, Cyril and Methodius, missionaries to the Slavic people. In the original design, the brothers are depicted with heads crowned by halos and a robe decorated with the cross. These items were removed in the new design. According to the Roman Catholic archbishop of the Slovak capital, Stanislav Zvolensky, “There is a movement in the European Union that wants total religious neutrality and can’t accept our Christian traditions.”

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The EU flag, with its circles of 12 yellow stars, inspired by iconography of the Virgin Mary wearing a crown with 12 stars

But according to Katharina von Schnurbein, the commission official responsible for outreach to both religious and “philosophical and non-confessional organizations,” the “European Commission is not the anti-Christ.” The report also notes that even the European Union’s flag has a coded Christian message. Indeed, the French Catholic, Arsène Heitz, who designed the flag in 1955, was inspired by Christian iconography of the Virgin Mary wearing a crown with 12 stars. These stars are also depicted on the to be minted coins.

The unification of Europe too has its origins in Christian ideals. A united Europe was first proposed in the ninth century by Charlemagne, the first ruler of the Holy Roman Empire.

But modern history tells a different story. The 1951 Treaty of Rome and other founding texts of the EU, makes no mention of God or Christianity.

But von Schnurbein dismisses accusations that the EU has a anti-Christian agenda. Rather, she says, “We deal with people of faith and also people of no faith.” Higgins emphasizes this point, writing that “assertive secularists and beleaguered believers battle to make their voices heard,” leaving the European Commission “under attack from both sides.”

The EU, Higgins admits, is generally uncomfortable with religion. He gives two reasons for this. First, well-organized secular groups that “pounce on any hint that Christians are being favored over other religions or nonbelievers” are increasing in number and campaign strategies.

The second reason, however, is somewhat contradictory. Higgins claims that “church attendance is falling across Europe as belief in God wanes and even cultural attachments wither.” But in the very next sentence he states that “the continent’s fastest-growing faith is now Islam.” He also states that in Britain more people believe in extraterrestrials than in God, and offers a statistical number—without reference—asserting that only half the population of the EU as a whole believe in God. But this is evidence not so much of religious decline as it is of religious transformation.

Ultimately, Higgins concludes, Slovakia’s national bank has decided to stick with its original coin design, with halos and crosses (which makes one wonder of the editorial wording of the title). The European Commission has also agreed to adhere to the original design, honoring the memory of Cyril and Methodius.

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