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Italy debates public crosses

By Paula Newton CNN
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Italy debates public crosses
  • CNN's Paula Newton travels to Rome to witness the debate about crucifixes
  • European judges have ruled that Italy should consider taking crosses down in public spaces
  • Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi dismayed by the ruling
  • Italy
  • Christianity

(CNN) -- The crucifix is at least two feet tall, with the figure of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns and hangs centered on the wall behind the judge. Even at the murder trial of Amanda Knox, the cross is a constant symbol of Italian history, identity and justice.

But according to judges from a European panel, the Italian government should consider taking down the cross in some public spaces, in particular in schools.

Saying the cross violated the principle of secular education in public school, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg said the display of Christian crosses, which is common but not mandatory in Italian schools, could be 'disturbing' for children of other faiths.

While the ruling was a recommendation and will not, as yet, be enforced, the ruling could have far reaching implications for the cross as an enduring symbol in Christian European countries.

The Guiseppe Gioachino Belli Middle School, in the shadow of the Vatican, teaches its pupils under the steady gaze of a crucifix in every classroom. And headmistress Carla Costetti says it should stay that way.

"What about all of our churches, our paintings, the virgin shrines on the streets. What are we going to obscure, everything? Because it could become offensive for those who don't believe in those symbols?" says Costetti.

"I think, the majority of European countries, in which Christianity has played a historical and important role, will hardly proceed with the removal of the crucifix. This does not mean 'not to adapt'. It means, however, that sovereignty is to respect the identity of each independent state." adds Costetti.

But atheist and Judge Luigi Tosti says he believes that the crucifix when exposed in public places like schools, violates religious freedom.

"I want to challenge the crucifix being a symbol of morally, culture and civilization. We must consider that the swastika for example is a symbol of negative values because Nazis are responsible for the death of six million of people, of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals. And if we evaluate the history of Christianity, we are not talking about 6 million people killed, but of a 100 million people killed, tortured, ghettoized in its 1,800 years history, with the crusades" says Tosti.

The crucifix exposed in the public places violates the principle of religious freedom
--Luigi Tosti

The Vatican certainly wasn't silent on the issue, calling the cross one its most sacred symbols and reacting almost sarcastically to the notion that schools should not display it.

The Vatican's Secretary of State, Tarcisio Bertone told Italian media, "Unfortunately this Europe of the third Millennium only leaves us with pumpkins, of the recently celebrated parties, and it deprives us of our dearest symbols. This is truly a loss."

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said he was dismayed and that such rulings make Italians "doubt the common sense of Europe."

But those in support of the ruling point out that similar pronouncements have been handed down by the Italian Constitutional Court.

"The crucifix exposed in the public places violates the principle of religious freedom, in this case of the students, and violates the right of the parents to educate their children based on their own religious and philosophy. Therefore, it is obvious that a parent who is atheist or belongs to another religion, might not like, rightly so, that his children be obliged to go to public schools where on its public walls hangs the symbol of only one religion." says Tosti.