Defending the Public Display of the Crucifix

Behind the Debate in Italy

ROME, NOV. 8, 2003 ( Controversy in Italy over a local judge’s decision to order the removal of school crucifixes has died down, following intervention by higher authorities to guarantee their presence. Despite initial appearances, the matter was not a question of church-state conflict. Neither was it a simple Christian-Islam clash.

Crucifixes are present in Italian public schoolrooms, and in many other public buildings, including courtrooms. The order to remove crucifixes from the classrooms of the nursery and elementary school in the town of Ofena came from a junior district judge of Aquila, Mario Montanaro. It followed a petition made by Adel Smith, president of the Union of Muslims of Italy.

Smith, who has publicly referred to crucifixes as “small cadavers,” is the father of two children who attend the school. Two years ago he had asked for the crucifixes to be removed, but his effort failed because of fierce opposition from other parents.

In his decision, Judge Montanaro claimed that Italy was undergoing a cultural transformation and that the Constitution requires respect for the followers of other beliefs. He declared as “anachronistic” the practice of displaying crucifixes in classrooms.

But constitutional expert Augusto Barbera explained in an interview published Oct. 29 in the daily Corriere della Sera that the judge was mistaken in his ruling, given that the law allows for crucifixes in classrooms. A 1923 government decree, confirmed in 1928, and unaltered by the concordat between Italy and the Catholic Church in 1984, provides for crucifixes in Italian schools. Another Corriere article pointed out that the Constitution allows for public display of symbols that form part of the nation’s historical patrimony.

The next day the newspaper reported that the Council of State in 1998 declared that the 1923 law was still applicable and that the crucifix is a symbol of Christian culture with universal value that does not harm religious liberty. Italy’s Constitutional Court also declared in a decision dated Oct. 13, 1998, that public display of the crucifix is not a violation of religious liberty.

A lone voice

Smith’s credentials to represent an Islamic objection to Christian symbols in public buildings were denied by Hmza Roberto Piccardo, secretary of the Islamic Communities in Italy. In an Oct. 27 interview in the La Stampa newspaper, Piccardo said that his organization represented more than 90% of the Islamic associations in Italy — and that they were not in agreement with Smith’s actions. “We believe that this attack against a religious symbol is an attack against all Italian religious symbols,” declared Piccardo.

Italy’s Muslims favor a secular state, explained Piccardo. But he added that it is impossible to ignore the feelings of the great majority of citizens. Smith, he argued, represents no one but himself. On a personal note, Piccardo said that he has five school-age children and has never had any problems with their attending schools that display crucifixes.

Even Abdulkadir Fadlallah Mamour, an imam controversial for his declared support of Osama bin Laden, does not support Smith, the Corriere della Sera reported Oct. 27. In fact, out of 20 Muslim figures interviewed by the paper, not one supported the removal of crucifixes.

Ali Abu Shwaima, head of the Islamic Center of Milan, commented that Smith is not considered a part of the Islamic community and does not attend any mosque. Shwaima thinks that Smith is only out for publicity.

Public figures to the defense

Criticism of the judge’s anti-crucifix decision came from a wide spectrum of Italian political and public authorities, the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano noted in its Oct. 27-28 edition.

“In my opinion the crucifix in schools has always been considered to be not only a distinctive sign of a particular religious belief, but above all a symbol of values that form the foundation of our identity,” declared Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi.

Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu said that the decision not only offended him as a Christian, but also as an Italian citizen. “The crucifix is not only the symbol of my religion, but is also the highest expression of 2,000 years of civilization that belong in their entirety to the Italian people,” he said.

Avvenire, Italy’s Catholic national daily, observed Oct. 29 that, with a few exceptions, support for the crucifix came from all the major political groupings. Even Giuseppe Vacca, a former member of Parliament for the Communist Party and current president of the Antonio Gramsci Institute, declared: “I don’t know of a higher symbol in the world than Christ’s cross.”

The crucifix, he said, goes beyond the boundaries of Christianity and embraces the whole of humanity. It also forms part of the Italian and European cultural identity, he affirmed.

Vacca explained that the controversy is not over the state’s secular identity or the rights of minorities. Rather, the case is an attempt to simply exclude a symbol that touches upon the deepest elements of cultural and national traditions, he said.

He also noted that in recent years John Paul II has managed to present to the world “an extraordinary resource of values and identity” to affront current problems. This has led to a strong relationship between values, faith and civil society, Vacca maintained. Thus, the lay state no longer needs to fight for its independence from the Catholic Church, he said. Nor does the search for public virtues need to be rigidly separated from the contribution that religion can make in this field, he added.

Support for the crucifix also came from other European politicians. German Interior Minister Otto Schily, who was in Rome for a European Union meeting on interreligious dialogue, said he was “stupefied” by the judge’s decision, the Corriere della Sera reported Oct. 31. Noting that Germany went through a similar dispute over schoolroom crucifixes, Schily contended that their presence is a genuine tradition in Europe that cannot be eliminated.

Naturally, the Catholic Church also raised its voice in support of the crucifixes. John Paul II spoke out on the issue at the Oct. 29 general audience and again in a speech two days later to Interior Ministers of the Europe Union.

In his speech to the EU ministers, the Pope observed that interreligious and intercultural dialogue does “not exclude an adequate recognition, even legislative, of the specific religious traditions in which each people is rooted and with which they are often identified in a special way.” This recognition extends to religious symbols, he added. Social cohesion and peace are not achieved by removing the characteristic religiosity of a culture, the Holy Father affirmed. At least on this issue the religious and secular worlds are at one.

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