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The year in issues: Religion and public life
The US elections, the insurgency in Iraq, Yasser Arafat's death, this year had its big news stories. But what else made a splash in 2004?

The BBC News website looks at some of the issues that got the pundits pondering this year. Click on the links below to find out more.

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World War II

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Religion and public life

The relationship between religion and public life was the subject of much discussion this year as the transatlantic divide between an increasingly secular Europe and a religious America gaped ever wider.

Rocco Buttiglione
Buttiglione was lambasted by MEPs for his religious views
Europe fought to keep religion out of the public sphere - America appeared increasingly comfortable with an overlap.

The decision by the French to ban religious symbols - including Islamic headscarves - from state schools, quickly became a subject of international debate.

Critics said it was a violation of religious freedoms and indeed, rather than promoting integration, could further alienate France's large Muslim community from mainstream society.

But the measure was approved by both houses of the French parliament, who argued that preserving secularity in French public life - and preventing young women from being forced into wearing the headscarf - was paramount.

Meanwhile Italy's nomination of Rocco Buttiglione to the European Commission caused a storm in the EU's parliament after the devout Catholic confided that he personally believed homosexuality to be a sin, and declared single mothers to be "not very good".

MEPs, arguing that a man who held such religious beliefs was entirely inappropriate for the justice department to which he had been nominated, refused to approve the entire commission until his candidacy was withdrawn. It was - a move hailed as a triumph for the European parliament and equality for women and gays within the 25-member bloc.

In a post-communist world, where the market is accepted by all, conventional political divisions over taxes, government spending and big business are giving way to more deeply felt differences on issues such as when life begins, the make-up of the family unit and the boundaries of medical science
Cristina Odone
New Statesman

However, for many, it also raised serious questions about religious tolerance in the bloc, as well as freedom of speech.

In the US, voters returned one of the most openly religious presidents in living memory.

President George W Bush's open embrace of God and efforts to introduce religious conservatism into a raft of social policies found favour with an electorate that this year gave him a second term in the White House.

His frequent references to God, his strident stance against gay marriage, and his "faith-based initiatives" which promote abstinence and heterosexual marriage, are widely held to have brought all important religious conservatives to the polls on 2 November, and influenced those who cited "moral" concerns as their reason for backing Mr Bush.

Mr Buttiglione and his supporters would like religious voters to count as much in Europe as they do in the US. He is vowing to begin a European movement designed to give Christian values a voice once more.

And the pundits have even pondered the possibility of a broader coalition of people of various faiths.

"In a post-communist world, where the market is accepted by all, conventional political divisions over taxes, government spending and big business are giving way to more deeply felt differences on issues such as when life begins, the make-up of the family unit and the boundaries of medical science," wrote the columnist Cristina Odone in the UK's New Statesman magazine.

"Armed with the conviction that their value system stems from a transcendental authority, people of faith have set to work to transform our society. Their crusade against the moral bankruptcy of western Europe may soon shift from being a rallying cry to become government policy."

Still, Europe's ardent secularists are not losing sleep yet.




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