MILAN, Italy, NOV. 14, 2001 ( Italy, long known for tolerance, especially of other religions, may have gone too far, some news media say.

A number of newspapers criticized a recent decision to close a school to allow a group of Muslim students to observe the beginning of Ramadan. Another school removed the crucifix from classrooms in order not to offend young Muslims.

These kinds of gestures of tolerance have come under attack for being "only one direction," since many Muslim countries do not recognize certain fundamental rights of believers of other religions.

"It is certainly a paradox, I cannot deny it, but it depends on the fact that we are living in a transition," acknowledged Francesco D´Agostino, professor of philosophy of law at the University of Tor Vergata and president of the Italian Catholic Jurists´ Association.

"We are at the crossroads between an era in which multiculturalism was unknown and a period in which it has become a daily reality," D´Agostino said.

The professor addresses this thorny problem in the following interview.

--Q: What does it mean, concretely, to be tolerant without diminishing one´s identity and culture?

--D´Agostino: Tolerance is a specific duty of Christians because they believe in a God who is Father of all men.

Specifically, we must highlight the elements that bring us closer to Muslims without lowering ourselves to compromises. This is a reality, even if Muslims had not attained this awareness. A Christian cannot limit himself to saying: if you do not let me open a church in Arabia, I will not let you pray in a mosque in Italy.

However, he may criticize; what is more, he must criticize false beliefs according to which, for example, the death of other human beings is [regarded as] an act of faith willed by God.

--Q: Let´s be specific: A Muslim father tries to remove the cross from his son´s school classroom.

--D´Agostino: We must respond with strategies of integration. We must say to him: "The cross cannot offend you; it has all the value of human dignity that the laity also advocate. We respect you if you carry the Koran in your briefcase."

--Q: I don´t think everyone will understand this explanation.

--D´Agostino: We must make use of strong historical patience. God has also been patient with his people. What is important is to sow, to give honest intellectual signs -- and not think that dialogue leads immediately to results.

--Q: How do you comment on the fact that non-Muslim children have a calling to allow their Muslim companions to celebrate Ramadan?

--D´Agostino: We must invent forms of compatibility. For example, that day, instead of staying at home, non-Muslim students could go to school to learn and talk about Islam´s values.

--Q: We are often ridiculed for this willingness.

--D´Agostino: It´s true, we won´t be understood, but this is also the price of Christian witness. However, we must not yield on matters of fundamental human rights, the values of civil coexistence, because their lay character cannot be given up, as they are the foundation of every human society.

--Q: But these values are seen by some as a Western legacy.

--D´Agostino: Here is where we must not compromise. For example, regarding the equality of man and woman. It must be defended without hesitation in the name of constitutional values and with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was signed in 1948 by many Muslim countries.