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Vatican welcomes European court decision on crucifixes

A crucifix hangs in a school classroom in Rome (CNS photo/Reuters)

A Vatican official has welcomed a European Court of Human Rights ruling on the display of crucifixes in Italian classrooms.

Crucifixes displayed publicly in Italy, including in classrooms, are a sign of Christianity’s key contribution to European culture and civilisation, said Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture.

Christianity is a “founding element” of western civilisation and “even if someone does not want to recognise it, it is an objective fact that the Christian presence is absolutely relevant, decisive”, the cardinal told reporters today.

Cardinal Ravasi spoke just a few hours before the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favour of Italy in a case where a mother claimed crucifixes in Italian public-school classrooms violated her children’s freedom of conscience.

A lower chamber of the European court had ruled in 2009 that the classroom crucifixes violated the religious freedom clauses of the European Convention of Human Rights.

Fr Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said the Vatican welcomed the Grand Chamber ruling, which recognizes that “human rights must not be placed in opposition to the religious foundations of European civilisation”.

The decision is an affirmation of the respect owed to each country of the European Union for “the religious symbols of its cultural history and national identity” and for national decisions on how the symbols can and should be displayed, Fr Lombardi said.

A lack of respect, he said, would lead to a situation in which, “in the name of religious liberty, paradoxically one would limit or even deny this freedom, ending up excluding every expression of it from the public sphere”.

Speaking to reporters at a news conference about a Vatican project to promote dialogue with atheists and other non-believers, Cardinal Ravasi had said that while a crucifix is a religious symbol to believers, it also is “a sign of civilisation” in the West.

In every culture, he said, people find symbols that express their identity and, in losing those symbols, “we run the great risk of losing our identity”.

“Having white walls leads to a void, to cultural fragility. You may need to explain what a religious symbol means, but it isn’t right to have to take down your symbols simply to avoid offending someone,” the cardinal said.

Similarly, he said, “when you go to a Muslim city, you aren’t concerned when you see golden crescent moons” lit at night and dotting the skyline.

During his news conference, the cardinal presented the programme for his office’s Courtyard of the Gentiles project, which aims to promote discussions between Christians and atheists.

The first sessions will be held in Paris on March 24-25, bringing Christian clergy, artists and activists together with non-believers from the world of politics, economics, law, literature and the arts.

Dialogue – whether with other Christians, with other religious believers or with atheists – isn’t about finding the “lowest common denominator”, Cardinal Ravasi said. He said it is about getting to know one another, learning from one another, working together to promote the common good and seeing how the other’s values may need more attention in your own life.

Of course, he said, the dialogue can take place only if both sides are willing to talk and to listen. The Courtyard of the Gentiles project involves atheists who find the question of God interesting and who share the Catholic Church’s concern to promote the good of individuals and society.

Cardinal Ravasi said that although one day the Church will have to expand the conversation, for the time being he has not found a way to have a constructive dialogue with l”more aggressive” atheists, “those who are more provocative, who don’t like nuances, but are almost fundamentalists” in their anti-religious beliefs and statements.

Dialogue, if it is serious, is not simply an exchange of information, he said. It is about presenting all of who one is and, therefore, it means witnessing.

“We don’t dialogue to broadcast a theory, but to share a vision that has an impact on our lives,” he said.

The cardinal said the “Courtyard of the Gentiles” project tentatively is scheduled to hold sessions in other cities around the world, including in Quebec in 2012 and in Chicago and Washington in 2013.