(European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek (L), European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (C) and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy (R) hold a news conference after a meeting with religious leaders in Brussels May 30, 2011/Yves Herman)

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 about 20 Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist leaders at an annual consultation in Brussels that the EU aimed to promote democracy and human rights both in Europe and in its neighbouring countries.

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.”