Italian Muslims fear 'crucifix' fallout

This week Italy is hosting an EU conference on inter-religious dialogue to promote peace between religions in Europe. But a story of religious conflict is dominating the Italian press.

A radical Muslim leader has won a court battle to remove the crucifix from a state school where his children attend - a decision which has shocked political and public opinion and caused deep concern within Italy's Muslim community.

The symbol of the crucifix is not just in every Italian church, it still looks down on pupils from classroom walls in every school even though Catholicism is no longer a state religion.

"I think we need the crucifix in our schools," says Lorena, picking her children up from a primary school in Rome.

"I remember it from when I was a child and I think its an important Catholic symbol to help guide our children today."

But now a court in L'Aquila in central Italy has ordered a primary school in the town of Ofena to take down its crucifix - a legal victory for radical Muslim Adel Smith, leader of the Italian Union of Muslims.

He went to the courts when the school refused to display a symbol from the Koran alongside the crucifix in his children's classroom.

"My children are still Italian so why should they feel inferior to the others because the symbol of their religion is not nailed on the wall like a cult?" he says.

"I've won this case - the law is on my side."

'Crazy Muslim activist'

The law may be on his side, but Italy's political establishment definitely is not.

There is universal condemnation of a decision they say is an insult to Italy's cultural heritage.

"It's ridiculous," says Rocco Buttiglione, Italy's Europe minister.

"In my opinion the cross should stay and, in any case, whether it stays or goes, it's not up to a crazy Muslim activist to forbid it. It's our business, not his."

Italy's moderate Muslim community is keen to distance itself from the court's decision.

Outside Rome's grand mosque after prayers, people gather round stalls to buy sweet tea and pastries.

There is little support here for Adel Smith and his court case.

Italian Muslims feel uncomfortable about the row

People here like Mohammed from Egypt worry that if the crucifix issue turns into a national debate, the Muslim community will be blamed, increasing tensions between Christians and Italy's rapidly growing Muslim population:

"I'm worried, very worried for us. This issue might be an excuse for racial hatred. It's bad news, very bad news."

As Italy tackles complex immigration issues which still inflame far-right sentiments, this is also something which also worries Europe Minister Rocco Buttiglione.

"This decision by the court to remove the crucifix confirms the worst fears of those who have a xenophobic attitude in this country," he says.

"It's a defeat for everyone who works for inter-religious dialogue and peaceful integration of immigrants."

But a debate within Italian public opinion about the secular character of education has already started.

Secular age

The main schools union, CGIL Scuola, has voiced unequivocal support for the removal of crucifixes from classrooms.

At one primary school in Rome's city centre, many parents like Alessandra are asking whether classrooms should perhaps be completely free from religious symbols.

"Everybody should be free to decide their religion," she says.

"So why have a religious symbol from one religion in every class in every school? I think it should be removed."

Now grabbing front-page headlines and dominating TV and radio talk shows, the debate about removing the crucifix from Italian classrooms is gathering pace but it is a debate Italy's Muslim community would rather not be associated with.