VATICAN CITY Pope Benedict strongly criticised the European Union on Saturday for excluding a mention of God and Europe's Christian roots in declarations marking the 50th anniversary of its founding.
In a toughly-worded speech to European bishops, Benedict said Europe was committing a form of "apostasy of itself" and was thus doubting its own identity.
The Pope, who like his predecessor John Paul often calls for a mention of God and Christianity in the European Constitution, said leaders could not exclude values that helped forge the "very soul" of the continent.
"If on the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome the governments of the union want to get closer to their citizens, how can they exclude an element as essential to the identity of Europe as Christianity, in which the vast majority of its people continue to identify," he said.
"Does not this unique form of apostasy of itself, even before God, lead it (Europe) to doubt its very identity?"
Apostasy is a total desertion of or departure from one's religion.
One of the Pope's compatriots, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, aims to relaunch the EU constitution and last month made a plea for the bloc to include references to Christian roots.
Plans to include such a reference in the original EU treaty, rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005, were blocked by French President Jacques Chirac.
Merkel, as holder of the EU's rotating presidency, is now in the process of reviving the constitution. Comments from Merkel, the daughter of a pastor, have encouraged religious leaders around Europe to redouble efforts to modify the constitution.
Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi said he had pushed for inclusion of Catholic roots in the document but that the main task ahead for Catholics was to carry on a dialogue with religions like Islam and Judaism.
But in another sign of disagreement between Europe's leaders, the conservative European People's Party included religious roots in its anniversary declaration, in contrast to the general EU declaration to be adopted on Sunday.
"Europe's Judeo-Christian roots and common cultural heritage, as well as the classic and humanist history of Europe and the achievements of the period of enlightenment, are the foundation of our political family," said the statement, adopted at a meeting attended by Merkel and other EU leaders.
Pope Benedict warned the bloc was headed up a slippery slope of indifference and said it could not deny its "historical, cultural and moral identity" that Christianity helped forge.
"A community that builds itself without respecting the true dignity of the human being, forgetting that each person is created in the image of God, ends up doing good for no one," he said.
(Additional reporting by Ingrid Melander in Berlin)