Why 20 Nations Are Defending the Crucifix

Interview With Director of European Law Organization

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By Jesús Colina


 
STRASBOURG, France, JULY 21, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Last November's ruling against the display of crucifixes in Italian schools has caused the most widespread opposition in the history of the European Court of Human Rights: 20 countries are officially opposed and have joined Italy in defense of the crucifix.

The July 22 Italian edition of L'Osservatore Romano explains some reasons for this in an article written by Gregor Puppinck, director of the European Center for Law and Justice, a Strasbourg-based NGO committed to freedom of worship and thought, especially before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and the United Nations.
 
Puppinck shows that opposition to the decision is not due only to political and juridical reasons, but also those of a spiritual character.

"The debate on the legitimacy of the presence of the symbol of Christ in Italian society is the emblem of a will to secularize Europe," he warns in this interview with ZENIT, in which he reviews the arguments presented in the Vatican daily.
 
ZENIT: Let us begin with the central question, what does the ruling against the crucifix imply?
 
Puppinck: The issue was presented to the Court of Strasbourg by Soile Lautsi, an Italian citizen of Finnish origin, who in 2002 requested the public school "Vittorino da Feltre" in Abano Terme, Padua, in which her two children studied, to remove the crucifix from classrooms. The administration of the school refused, considering that the crucifix is part of Italian cultural patrimony. Subsequently, the Italian courts approved this argument. Before the Court of Strasbourg, Lautsi argued that the display of the crucifix in her children's classrooms was a violation of their liberty of conviction and, hence, of the right to receive a public education according to their religious convictions.
 
In deciding in favor of the plaintiff, the court considered that the presence of a religious symbol in the classrooms is something bad in itself, which cannot be justified. Up to that moment, on the contrary, the court had always considered that states are free in this area, that it is necessary to respect their culture and tradition, and that the only limitation that cannot be surmounted is that of subjecting pupils to indoctrination or an abusive proselytism.
 
With the objective of giving a legal foundation to its decision, the court has created a new obligation, according to which the state would be "obliged to confessional neutrality in the framework of public education, where participation in the courses is required without taking religion into account, and that it must try to inculcate critical thought in pupils." In other words, the court states in the Lautsi decision that, to be democratic, a society must give up its religious identity.
 
Italy appealed against this decision in the Great Hall of the Court of Strasbourg, which was heard on June 20. The court's decision is expected in the fall.
 
ZENIT: Why has this decision triggered the opposition of 20 countries in support of Italy?
 
Puppinck: The Lautsi case is of considerable importance. It is emblematic, as it calls into question the visible presence of Christ in the schools of Rome, of Italy, and of the whole of Europe. This case has become a symbol of the present conflict on the future of the cultural and religious identity of Europe. This conflict confronts the promoters of the total secularization of society and those who defend a Europe open and faithful to its profound identity. The promoters of secularization see in secularism the solution that makes possible the management of religious pluralism, and they see pluralism as an argument that makes possible the imposition of secularism.
 
There is nothing neutral in all this. Secularization is not a strictly spontaneous and unavoidable phenomenon. Even in the essential, it stems from political options, such as the anti-clerical policy of France at the beginning of the 20th century, or that which the Spanish government is promoting at present. The same happens with this first Lautsi decision, which not only is based on juridical arguments, but above all on a political prejudice.
 
Europe is diverse and only a minority of states, such as France, has given up officially its Christian identity. Others have remained faithful, or have embraced it again, as happens in certain countries that were Communist. Religious pluralism, cosmopolitanism, which serves as a paradigm to the court's argumentation, is a science fiction reality foreign to the European territory.
 
It is increasingly clear that the public institutions of Western Europe -- and the Lautsi decision is no more than an example -- have opted to limit religious liberty and impose the secularization of society for the purpose of promoting a certain cultural model in which the absence of values, neutrality, and relativism, pluralism, are the only values that justify a political plan that wishes to be "post-religious" and "post-identitary," in a word, "post-modern." This political plan has a tendency to monopoly in so far as a philosophic system.
 
ZENIT: But this decision has caused an unprecedented political reaction, which no one expected.
 
Puppinck: Indeed. Three weeks after the hearing before the Great Hall of the Court of Strasbourg, every day it becomes clearer that a truly considerable victory has been achieved against the dynamic of secularization. Although juridically Italy has not yet won, politically it has already achieved a masterful victory. In fact, today, at least 20 European countries have given their official support to Italy, in public defense of the legitimacy of the presence of Christian symbols in the society and, in particular, in schools.
 
Initially, 10 countries took part in the Lautsi case as "amicus curiae," that is, "third parties." Each one of these countries -- Armenia, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Lithuania, Malta, Monaco, Romania, the Russian Federation and San Marino -- handed the court a written document inviting it to annul the first decision. These documents are not only of juridical interest, but are above all extraordinary testimonies of the defense of their patrimony and identity in face of the imposition of a sole cultural model. Lithuania, for example, did not hesitate to compare the Lautsi decision with the religious persecution it suffered and which was manifested precisely in the banning of religious symbols.
 
Ten other countries were added to these 10. The governments of Albania, Austria, Croatia, Hungary, Macedonia, Moldavia, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia and Ukraine, have called into question the decision of the court and have requested that national religious identities and traditions be respected. Several governments have insisted on the fact that religious identity constitutes the source of values and of European unity.
 
In this way, with Italy, now almost half the Member States of the Council of Europe (21 out of 47) have publicly opposed this attempt of forced secularization of schools and have affirmed the social legitimacy of Christianity in European society. Behind the real arguments of defense of identity, of culture and of the national Christian tradition, these states have affirmed and defended publicly their attachment to Christ himself; they have reminded that it is in conformity with the common good that Christ be present and honored in society.
 
This coalition which brings together almost the whole of Central and Eastern Europe shows that still today there is an internal cultural division in Europe; it also shows that this division can be overcome, as is seen in the important support given to Italy by countries of Orthodox tradition, regardless of the political orientation of the moment.
 
The importance of the support given by countries of Orthodox tradition is due to a great extent to the determination of the Moscow patriarchate to defend itself in face of the advance of secularism. Applying the petition of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow to "the unity of the Christian Churches against the advance of secularism," Metropolitan Hilarion, chairman of the Department of External Affairs of the Moscow Patriarchate, proposed the constitution of a "strategic alliance between Catholics and Orthodox" to defend together Christian tradition "against the secularism, liberalism and relativism that prevail in modern Europe." This support must be understood probably as an application of this strategy.
 
The Council of Europe, on which the Court of Strasbourg depends, states in its founding charter "the unbreakable attachment" of the peoples of Europe to "the spiritual and moral values that make up its common patrimony." These spiritual and moral values are not of a private character, they constitute the religious identity of Europe and are recognized as founders of the European political project. As the Holy Father recalled recently, Christianity is at the origin of these spiritual and moral values. The alliance of these 21 countries indicates that it is possible to build the future of European society on this foundation, with the proviso of making a lucid reflection on the contemporary Western cultural model and on fidelity to Christ. Europe cannot face the future by renouncing Christ.
 
[Translation by ZENIT]