On Display in Italy: Classroom Crosses, and a Raw Nerve

Right on the edge of this tiny mountain town, snug beside the main road into it, stands a cross.

There is another cross atop a church that looms above all the other buildings, and yet another cross high on the wall of the room where the City Council meets.

"We have many crosses," said the mayor, Anna Rita Coletti, in an interview inside that room on Wednesday.

But one cross in particular has caught the attention and stirred the passions of Italians far and wide.

It has also prompted an intense discussion — about the proper place of Christianity in Italy's identity; about the right way to adjust to immigrants of different faiths — that reflects unresolved tensions throughout Western Europe.

That cross hangs in the only elementary school in Ofena, about 90 miles east of Rome. On Saturday, a judge ruled that it should be taken down.

The judge was responding to a lawsuit by a Muslim man who has several children in the school and claims that the cross is discriminatory.

Italians responded to the ruling with a fury that dominated news coverage around the country for several days and has not yet abated. Leading politicians of all ideological stripes denounced the decision as an affront to Italy's history and heritage.

The Vatican newspaper on Monday and again on Wednesday used its front page to protest the court ruling, and Pope John Paul II on Wednesday made a point of saying that "the cross of Christ is the eloquent symbol" of a loving, caring civilization.

The pope, making brief public remarks, also called the cross "the source of light, of comfort and of hope for mankind through all of time."

Italians do not always agree with him. Although about 85 percent of Italy's 57 million residents are nominally Roman Catholic, the majority of them do not attend church with any regularity.

Roman Catholicism ceased to be the official state religion nearly two decades ago, and both abortion and divorce, which run contrary to Catholic teaching, are common here.

But the idea that a cross should be banned from a classroom seems, for many Italians, to be a step too far from their roots and too close to a kind of multiculturalism that is still largely foreign.

"The cross has always been there," said Anna Berardi, 56, as she stood outside the elementary school on Wednesday, marveling at the phalanx of television news trucks in the parking lot.

Ms. Berardi, who said that she seldom attends church, was referring to the cross as a visual motif throughout Italy, and she kept repeating herself.

"It's always been there," she said. "It's how we were taught. It's the way it's always been."

Other Italians said that the very ubiquity of the cross had turned it into a general cultural symbol as opposed to an exclusively religious one.

They also said that to banish it from schools or city halls would be to deny the importance of Christianity in Italian art and even ethics.

"The crucifix has always been considered not only a distinctive sign of a particular religious credo, but above all a symbol of the values that are at the base of our Italian identity," said Italy's president, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, earlier this week.

Mayor Coletti rendered a similar assessment, saying that the crosses in public buildings were not so much spiritual symbols as civic ones. She compared them to the Italian flags and portraits of President Ciampi that also tend to hang in those buildings.

"They're part of our history," she said.

That opinion is shared by people who have fought unsuccessfully to have a reference to Christianity inserted into the preamble of a constitution for the European Union.

Those advocates have lost out to political leaders who say that Europe has become too diverse for any one faith to be singled out.

Italy has a relatively small Muslim population: 500,000 to 800,000 people, according to estimates.

But new immigrants arrive every day, and there is an almost constant, palpable sense of unease about that in political debate and everyday conversation.

Italians openly wonder what the future will hold, and how far they will be asked to budge.

"We are trying to coexist with the immigrants," said Alessandro Ortenzi, 25, one of about 650 year-round residents of Ofena.

"We build them mosques, and in Milan they get two hours off every day during Ramadan," he said. "Can you imagine an Italian asking for an hour off work to say the rosary?"

Ofena survives mostly on agriculture and, in fact, has few immigrants.

But it happens to be the home of Adel Smith, the outspoken, peripatetic advocate for Muslims who filed the lawsuit. Mr. Smith is an Egyptian immigrant with a Scottish father.

Town residents said that no one in Ofena had ever treated him or his children badly and that he was just looking to promote himself and several little-known books he has written on religion and politics.

Mr. Smith said he was seeking social justice.

"Either everyone is equal before the law or no one is equal," he said during a brief telephone interview from Milan, where he had traveled to make the latest of many television appearances this week.

"Either all of the religious symbols should be respected or none of them," he said.

The Italian Constitution says all religions are "equally free before the law." But a law from the 1920's that has never been overturned says schools must display crosses.

According to Italian legal scholars and government officials, Saturday's court ruling is unlikely to usurp that law or apply beyond Ofena.

But the ruling is nonetheless reverberating throughout the country.

Several mayors of other towns near Ofena have declared that they are going to distribute crosses to residents as Christmas presents.

The cross in the school in Ofena has not yet been taken down. The Italian justice minister has ordered an investigation into the ruling.

Local residents are waiting, watching and worrying.

Claudice D'adario, 60, said that if Muslims wanted to come "with the Koran printed on their outfits, that's fine."

"But to get rid of a symbol that's existed for so long," Ms. D'adario said, "is not right."