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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.

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Crucifixes were an undeniable symbol of Catholicism, the court ruled, and as such were at odds with the principle of "educational pluralism."

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'Moral damages'

The court upheld a complaint filed by Soile Lautsi, a Finnish woman who lives in Italy and has Italian citizenship, who complained that her children had to attend a state school in a town near Venice which had crucifixes in every classroom.

The court awarded her €5,000 ($7,400 dollars) in "moral damages," which will have to be paid by the Italian government unless it is successful in an appeal. The judges stopped short of ordering authorities to remove crucifixes from all state-run schools, and the long-term implications of the ruling were unclear.

The judgment sparked anger in predominantly Catholic Italy, with ministers and the Catholic Church saying the crucifix was an integral part of Italy's national identity.

Foreign minister Franco Frattini, speaking during a visit to Morocco, said it was an attack on Italy's Christian identity and that the government would appeal the decision.

"At a time when we're trying to bring religions closer together, this is a blow to Christianity," he said.

The agriculture minister Luca Zaia, a member of the anti-immigrant Northern League, a key ally in Mr Berlusconi's bloc, called the judgment "shameful." Mario Baccini, a senator in Mr. Berlusconi's People of Freedom party, said the court had "gone adrift in paganism."

The newly-elected head of the main opposition Democratic Party, Pierluigi Bersani, commented that the ruling lacked common sense. "I think a longstanding tradition like the crucifix can't be offensive to anyone," he said.

Italian bishops protest

The powerful Italian Bishops Conference said in a statement that the ruling was based on a "biased and ideological view." The Vatican said it wanted to study the exact wording of the ruling before issuing a response.

Mrs. Lautsi first brought the case eight years ago when her two children went to a state school in the spa town of Abano Terme near Venice. She asked for them to be taken down but education authorities refused. She then spent several years fighting the decision through the Italian courts.

A court in the Veneto region where she lives rejected her arguments, prompting her to take the case to Strasbourg.