An Italian judge’s order that the crucifix be removed from a public school drew a rebuke Monday from the Vatican and set off outrage across a country that officially separates church and state but appears unwilling to abandon its Catholic roots.
The Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano printed a front-page illustration of Christ juxtaposed with a 1998 comment from Pope John Paul II.
“Many things can be removed from us Christians. But the cross as a sign of salvation we will not let them take,” the pope’s quote said. “We will not allow it to be excluded from public life.”
The controversy erupted after Islamic activist Adel Smith won a court ruling last week to have a crucifix removed from his sons’ elementary school in the small town of Ofena, 90 miles northeast of Rome.
Vatican Radio denounced the ruling Monday, with an announcer saying: “It is undeniable that the crucifix and its message of universal love are central to European and Italian history.”
A series of guests took to the airwaves to criticize the ruling, including Catholic historian and commentator Giorgio Rumi. “The Christian religious sign represents a guarantee for other religious signs, because tomorrow the secularist could take issue with the Crescent Moon, with the Star of David, and so on,” he argued.
Mario Scialoja, a World Muslim League representative in Italy, told Vatican Radio: “This was an unfortunate ruling brought on by a request from Mr. Adel Smith, who represents himself and another three people at most.”
Smith stressed that Italy is a secular country. “The Vatican is one thing, the Republic of Italy is another,” he said Sunday. “The decision of the judge was independent and impartial.”
However, several legal experts say the judge’s ruling was mistaken, citing a 1924 law that calls for displaying the crucifix in schools. And often-divided Italian politicians have been almost unanimous in their criticism of the ruling, with many characterizing it as a defeat for religious freedom.
President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi weighed in Monday, saying the cross represents Italian values.
“In my judgment, the crucifix has always been considered not only as a distinctive sign of a particular religious credo, but above all as a symbol of the values that are at the base of our Italian identity,” said Ciampi, whose role is largely ceremonial but who holds great moral weight here.
The issue may be gaining such attention because Italy has only recently begun to acknowledge large non-Christian groups in its society. This country of 57 million people has about 1.2 million legal immigrants, with thousands more arriving illegally every year. One estimate says there are now as many as 800,000 Muslims in Italy.
The school in Ofena has a month to abide by the court’s ruling, which can be appealed. The Education Ministry will not apply the court ruling in other Italian schools, news reports said.