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View from Here - Italians get cross about the cross

A row looms over a European Court ban on crucifixes in schools. But do depictions of torture belong in the classroom, asks Michael Fitzpatrick

A row looms over a European Court ban on crucifixes in schools. But do depictions of torture belong in the classroom, asks Michael Fitzpatrick

Not since a Japanese department store reportedly nailed Santa to a cross has there been such a furore over displaying images of the crucifixion.

Last month, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled that displays of crucifixes in school classrooms should be barred in Italy, even though they have been commonplace in public spaces here since the onset of fascist rule more than 70 years ago.

Many Italians now hope an appeal against the decision, currently under consideration, will overturn that ruling.

Will their prayers be answered? Short of a surprise act of divine intervention, it seems unlikely. A court spokeswoman recently said of an appeal: "There is nothing to suggest anything will be different." Strasbourg will issue its final decree within the next month.

However, it is unclear if the court will demand a complete ban on the cross in schools. In any case, Italy is notorious for getting around rules and regulations. "Fatta la legge, trovato l'inganno", as they say here - every law has a loophole.

But it is still a serious business for the Vatican. When the post-war constitution ordered a separation of Church and State, Catholicism ceased to be Italy's state religion. Yet the Church was still effectively ruling schools, without fear of trespass, until as late as 1984.

Given the deep roots of Catholicism here, it is perhaps no surprise that many schools still continue the practice of adorning each classroom wall with those gruesome reminders of the low point in the Jesus Christ fable.

As one brought up in the Irish Catholic tradition, I can say I will not be sorry about their banishment. Crucifixes, along with the ubiquitous portrait of Jesus undergoing a type of graphic-arts-enhanced open heart surgery only served to instil foreboding and unease in my young breast.

Meantime, the great and the good, probably looking to squeeze political capital out of such outrageous foreign meddling, have been lining up to denounce the judgment.

"This is a great battle for the freedom and identity of our Christian values," said Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini.

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