* Italy objects to lack of reference to Christians
* Draft shows “excess of secularism”, minister says
BRUSSELS, Jan 31 (Reuters) - The European Union failed to agree on a statement against the persecution of religious minorities on Monday after Italy objected to the omission of any reference to the protection of Christians.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said a draft proposed at a meeting of EU foreign ministers expressing concern about increasing numbers of attacks on places of worship and pilgrims showed an “excess of secularism”.
“The final text didn’t include any mention of Christians, as if we were talking of something else, so I asked the text to be withdrawn, so in fact it has been withdrawn,” he told reporters.
France backed Italy on the need to include references to specific minorities, including Christians and Shi‘ite Muslims, diplomats said.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the 27 EU ministers had agreed to “go back and reflect” on how, in the course of backing religious freedoms and tolerance, the bloc could “make sure we recognise individual communities of whatever religion who find themselves being harassed or worse”.
Several EU states called for the discussion of persecution of Christians after a suicide bombing at a Coptic Christian church in northern Egypt on Dec. 31 in which 23 people were killed and dozens wounded.
Two people were killed and at least 16 wounded in a series of bomb attacks on the homes of minority Christians in the Iraqi capital Baghdad on Dec. 30.
During the Christmas festival, six people were killed in attacks on two Christian churches in northeastern Nigeria and six were wounded by a bomb in a Roman Catholic Church on the island of Jolo in the Philippines.
The Vatican fears the attacks, combined with severe restrictions on Christians in countries such as Saudi Arabia, are contributing to a Christian exodus from the Middle East.
Egypt reacted angrily when Pope Benedict called for more effective measures to protect religious minorities after the attack there. Egypt dismissed his words as “unacceptable interference” in its internal affairs. (Reporting by David Brunnstrom; editing by Andrew Dobbie)