Furor in Italy Over Scrapping of Christmas Play

An Italian school's substitution of a Nativity play with Little Red Riding Hood so as not to offend Muslim children has raised the Vatican's ire and sparked debate on how much traditions should change to accommodate immigrants.

The episode was the latest in a series in recent weeks which made headlines as overwhelmingly Catholic Italy comes to grips with an ever-growing Muslim population which some see as a blessing for the economy and others as a threat.

Pope John Paul, in a message for the Catholic Church's World Day of Migrants, weighed in indirectly, saying Christians had to respect cultural differences but had to proclaim the gospel and defend traditions.

Last week, a public elementary school in the northern city of Treviso decided that Little Red Riding Hood would be this year's Christmas play instead of the Christmas story.

The teachers said the famous tale was a fitting representation of the struggle between good and evil and would not offend Muslim children. The school's traditional nativity scene was scrapped for the same reason.

In another school near Milan, the word "Jesus" was removed from a Christmas hymn and substituted with the word "virtue." In Vicenza province an annual contest for the best Nativity scene in schools was canceled.

Conservative politicians and Churchmen blasted the moves.

"Are we losing our minds?," said Reforms Minister Roberto Calderoli, an outspoken member of the populist Northern League. "Do we want to erase our identity for the love of Allah?"

The Vatican, still smarting from its failure to win a reference to Europe's Christian roots in the continent's new constitution, said Christians should hold their ground.

"It is a perfect example of how not to respect the presence of different people, in this case our Muslim brothers, by annihilating our own identity," said Bishop Agostino Marchetto, head of the Vatican's department for migrants.

"We have to accept others but others have to accept our identity," he told reporters.


The Vatican has been waging a battle to keep Christ in Christmas. On Wednesday it harshly criticized a Nativity scene in London which portrayed soccer star David Beckham and his wife Victoria as Joseph and Mary.

Cardinal Camillo Ruini of Rome went on national television event on Wednesday to issued a battle cry over respect for traditional Nativity creches.

"These things can seem small but the spirit behind them is radically wrong and can have very heavy consequences on our young people," he said.

Italy, with a population of 57 million, is home to an estimated one million officially registered Muslims, making Islam the country's second largest religion. But social services groups say the number is much higher and growing.

The controversies have divided Italian Muslims, who are trying to integrate themselves in a Catholic country where they have found jobs.

"Those Christmas plays are like forced indoctrination," said Abdel Smith, one of Italy's most outspoken Muslim leaders, who has launched legal battles to take crucifixes from school walls.

But Hamed Shaari, head of a major Islamic cultural institute in Milan, said it was "senseless" to change the words of a Christmas song that has 2,000 years of tradition behind it.

"It's great that people are aware of our feelings but traditions should be respected. This way, we can respect ours as well," he said.