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Italians outraged as European court rules against crucifixes

After a European court rules against crucifixes in Italian schoolrooms, Italians from across the political spectrum decry an assault on the country's Roman Catholic identity.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 3, 2009

A crucifix is displayed on a classroom wall as a student writes on a blackboard in a school in Rome Tuesday. The European Court of Human Rights ruled on Tuesday that Italian schools should remove crucifixes from classroom walls, saying their presence could disturb children who were not Christians.

Tony Gentile/REUTERS

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Rome

Italians reacted with outrage on Tuesday after a European court ruled that displaying crucifixes in the country's schools violated the principle of secular education.

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Italy's education minister condemned the judgment by the European Court of Human Rights, saying that the Christian cross was a symbol of the country's Roman Catholic religion and cultural identity.

Mariastella Gelmini, a member of the conservative government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, argued that "no one, and certainly not an ideological European court, will succeed in erasing our identity," said

Other ministers said they were appalled by the ruling, calling it "absurd," "shameful" and "offensive."

Generations of Italian children have grown up studying in classrooms in which a wooden or metal crucifix looms above the blackboard. But Italy has been transformed in the past two decades from a country that exported migrants to one that has accepted around 4.5 million economic refugees and asylum seekers from Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia.

The influx of foreigners has led to deep-seated tensions, particularly with Roma gypsies from former Eastern bloc countries and Muslim immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East.

Schools in Spain, France, and Britain have also debated whether crucifixes should be allowed in public schools. The landmark ruling could prompt a Europewide review of the use of religious symbols in state-run schools.

Europe losing its identity?

The decision was handed down by a panel of seven judges at the court in Strasbourg. They said that the display of crucifixes, which is common but not mandatory in Italian schools, violated the principle of secular education and might be intimidating for children from other faiths.

"The presence of the crucifix could be ... disturbing for pupils who practiced other religions or were atheists, particularly if they belonged to religious minorities," the court said. "The compulsory display of a symbol of a given confession in premises used by the public authorities... restricted the right of parents to educate their children in conformity with their convictions," it added.

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