Crucifix ban in Italian school comes under fire from churches

Roman Catholic and Orthodox bishops have urged the European Court of Human Rights to revoke a judgment against school crucifixes in Italy as the institution prepared to consider an appeal on the issue.

"We hope people's religious feelings will be taken into account," the Italian (Catholic) Bishops' Conference had written in a statement on 16 June. "A decision not to penalise the presence of the Cross and religious symbols in the public sphere would reflect the principle of subsidiarity which regulates relations between States and European institutions."

The Strasbourg-based court ruled in November that the display of crucifixes in Italian schools breached the rights of non-Catholics. Italy, supported by other European nations, began an appeal against the ruling on 30 June. The court's final ruling later in 2010 is expected to apply to schools in all 47 member countries of the Council of Europe.

Orthodox leaders from Bulgaria, Romania, Russia and Ukraine have declared their support for Catholics in Italy and warned that a ban on crucifixes will constitute an attack on European religious identities.

"Such decisions express a tendency to exile religion into the private space and reject the role of Christianity in society, just as happened in Eastern Europe during the communist regime, when a totalitarian ideological minority obstructed and even persecuted the faith, tradition and culture of the majority of the Christian population," the Romanian Orthodox Church said in a press release on 23 June.

"A society cannot exist without symbols, and if the Christian religious symbols turned into national lay cultural symbols, bearing human universal values, are excluded from the public space, symbols of a different nature (commercial, consuming ones) will replace them, as a result of the loss of the national cultural identity," the church stated.

A Jewish professor of international law at New York University, Josef Weiler, representing countries opposed to the ban, said secular principles were interpreted differently in different parts of Europe.

"France wouldn't be France without empty school walls, but Italy wouldn't be Italy without crucifixes," Weiler told the court on 30 June.

Official support for the Italian government has so far been declared by Armenia, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Lithuania, Malta, Monaco, Romania, Russia and San Marino, as well as by Albania, Moldavia, Serbia and Ukraine.

In Italy, a November 2009 survey for the Corriere della Sera newspaper showed that 84 percent of respondents favour keeping crucifixes in schools. This included more than two-thirds of people who never attended church.

By Jonathan Luxmoore