A sharp decline in the numbers of church-goers and new baptisms over the last century in Europe has been called a "crisis of faith" by many religious leaders. Now that crisis is ballooning into a full-blown exodus, as thousands flock to new websites offering "de-baptisms," according to Voice of America.

The idea of getting "de-baptized"-- or having your name officially deleted from the baptismal registry-- is relatively new, but one which the Catholic Church is beginning to take seriously, and with grave concern.

The movement may have begun just a decade ago when Terry Sanderson, head of the National Secular Society in Britain, posted an unofficial "de-baptism certificate" on the society's website, mostly as a joke. To date it has been downloaded at least 100,000 times.

"It was a joke to begin with, but now it has taken on a new significance because there are so many people who are anxious to leave the church that they are actually taking it seriously now, and they want some way to make their break with the church formal," Sanderson told VOA. "Often the church won't acknowledge their desire to leave."

Many disenfranchised ex-parishioners have begun to take it a step further, seeking official, legal acknowledgement for de-baptism. For instance, 71-year-old Frenchman Rene Lebouvier recently filed a lawsuit against the church after his initial request to have his name crossed off the church's baptismal registry was denied. Last October, a lower court in Normandy ruled in his favor, making him the first man to be officially de-baptized, though a local bishop has filed an appeal.

Last year in Germany, a record 181,000 Catholics formally split from the church by legally opting out of paying state church taxes.

Christian Weisner, a spokesman for the international grassroots We Are Church movement, says he blames much of the de-baptism movement on public anger about church pedophilia scandals, though acknowledges that official church doctrine has also swayed against public opinion on many political issues, such as abortion, homosexuality and married priests.

"They are thinking about leaving the church and there might be one special event, like the pedophilia crisis, like a [conservative] announcement by the pope, and then they decide now is the time to go," Weisner said.

The movement shouldn't come as a surprise to the church, as official figures have shown a steep decline in religious participation in Europe over the last several decades. For instance, only about one in three French children are baptized today, compared to 90 percent half a century ago.

According to religion professor Philippe Portier of the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, the church has put in place a new evangelizing strategy to more strongly encourage parents to get their children baptized.

Such a proactive strategy may be for naught, however, if de-baptisms continue to increase.

Bryan Nelson ( @@brynelson ) writes about everything from environmental problems here on Earth to big questions in space.

Anti-church sentiment rises in Europe as more people seek 'de-baptism'
Websites offering informal 'de-baptism' certificates have ballooned.