Vatican welcomes European court decision on classroom crucifixes

By  Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service
  • March 18, 2011
A crucifix hangs in a school classroom in Rome. (CNS photo/Reuters)VATICAN CITY - Crucifixes displayed publicly in Italy, including in classrooms, are a sign of Christianity's key contribution to European culture and civilization, said Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture.

Christianity is a "founding element" of Western civilization and "even if someone does not want to recognize it, it is an objective fact that the Christian presence is absolutely relevant, decisive,"  the cardinal told reporters March 18.

Ravasi spoke just a few hours before the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favour of Italy in a case where a mother claimed crucifixes in Italian public-school classrooms violated her children's freedom of conscience. A lower chamber of the European court had ruled in 2009 that the classroom crucifixes violated the religious freedom clauses of the European Convention of Human Rights.

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said the Vatican welcomed the Grand Chamber ruling, which recognizes that "human rights must not be placed in opposition to the religious foundations of European civilization." The decision is an affirmation of the respect owed to each country of the European Union for "the religious symbols of its cultural history and national identity" and for national decisions on how the symbols can and should be displayed, Lombardi said.

A lack of respect, he said, would lead to a situation in which, "in the name of religious liberty, paradoxically one would limit or even deny this freedom, ending up excluding every expression of it from the public sphere."

Speaking to reporters at a news conference about a Vatican project to promote dialogue with atheists and other nonbelievers, Ravasi had said that while a crucifix is a religious symbol to believers, it also is "a sign of civilization" in the West. In every culture, he said, people find symbols that express their identity and, in losing those symbols, "we run the great risk of losing our identity."

"Having white walls leads to a void, to cultural fragility. You may need to explain what a religious symbol means, but it isn't right to have to take down your symbols simply to avoid offending someone," the cardinal said.

Similarly, he said, "when you go to a Muslim city, you aren't concerned when you see golden crescent moons" lit at night and dotting the skyline.

During his news conference, the cardinal presented the program for his office's "Courtyard of the Gentiles" project, which aims to promote discussions between Christians and atheists or nonbelievers. The first sessions will be held in Paris March 24-25, bringing Christian clergy, artists and activists together with nonbelievers from the world of politics, economics, law, literature and the arts.

The cardinal said the "Courtyard of the Gentiles" project tentatively is scheduled to hold sessions in other cities around the world, including in Quebec in 2012 and in Chicago and Washington in 2013.

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