Controversy over the display of a crucifix in a small Italian schoolroom has sent the complexities of modern Europe into a head-on collision with tradition and religious sensitivities here, touching off bitter recrimination.
The debate has forced Italians to confront their national identity, acknowledge that the country is no longer homogenous -- neither religiously nor ethnically -- and weigh the bounds of tolerance.
It all began when Adel Smith, an Italian resident and Muslim activist known for controversial statements over the years, sued to have the crucifix removed from an elementary classroom at the public school his two children attend in the small town of Ofena, northeast of Rome. He said the cross was offensive, and his efforts to display a plaque with Koranic verses for balance had been rebuffed.
To the surprise of many, a judge ordered the Christian icon removed. Crosses in schools reflect the state's "unequivocal desire
School officials balked at the judge's Oct. 25 order, and a fierce debate has raged.
Politicians and prelates were outraged. Italians took to the streets with placards warning "hands off" crosses in schools and other public places. One official snarled about an "Islamic invasion" threatening Europe. A church publication likened removing the cross to an attempt to erase centuries of world history.
"I am offended as both a Christian and an Italian citizen," Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu said. The ruling Forza Italia party of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said the court's decision was an affront to "the fundamental values of Italian history and culture."
Responding to the ruling, the Education Ministry filed an appeal, and Friday another court suspended the order to remove the cross at the Ofena school. Another hearing in a regional court is scheduled for Nov. 19 to attempt to settle the matter.
Pope John Paul II also has weighed in, raising the issue several times during the week, including during a meeting Friday with interior ministers from the European Union. The pope has been lobbying EU countries to pay homage to what he calls Europe's Christian roots in the EU's first constitution, which is being drafted and does not include such a reference.
"The cross of Christ is an eloquent symbol of civilization and of love, giving light, comfort and hope, for all mankind and for all time," he told a general audience at St. Peter's Square.
Italians in their vast majority identify themselves as Roman Catholics. But in daily practice, much smaller numbers attend Mass regularly or heed the pope's teachings on contraception and similar lifestyle issues.
Consequently, many here are ambivalent about the church. It forms an important backdrop to their lives, though it doesn't govern them.
The cross issue goes to a deeper sensibility, said Italian sociologist Franco Ferrarotti.
"This is a profoundly a-religious country," Ferrarotti said. "Italians are both Catholic and atheist at the same time. But they get very angry if you take away their crucifix, not so much because it's a sign of religion but because it belongs to their culture and their tradition."
Italy, like most of Europe, has undergone dramatic demographic change because of legal and illegal immigration. While Italy is gripped by the crucifix issue, France and Germany are grappling with whether to allow the use of head scarves by Muslim schoolgirls.
Large Muslim and other non-Christian communities have sprung up in numerous Italian cities, and Italian society is being forced to adjust. In this country of about 57.9 million, Muslims account for about 1 million. Most are immigrants, and several senior politicians are determined to find ways to discourage new arrivals.
"There is growing fear of immigration in Europe," Pisanu, the interior minister, said at the EU ministers' meeting Friday. "We fear for our security, for our identity, for our jobs and social stability."
Smith does not represent the majority of Muslims in Italy. At least in terms of its rhetoric, his Union of Italian Muslims is considered more extreme than other groups, and mainstream Muslim leaders have been quick to distance themselves from him.
"Italy is a country of Catholic tradition," Mario Scialoja, director of the World Islamic League, told Panorama magazine. "We respect the crucifix as a symbol of a sister religion, another great monotheistic religion that descended from Abraham, like Islam."
Other Italians, while similarly distancing themselves from Smith, praised the court ruling, saying that making Italy secular was the best way to keep it democratic and multicultural.
"A lot is at stake here," said Tulia Zevy, former head of the Jewish community in Rome. "Italians must realize that this is not about insulting the Catholic religion. If [one group] has their crucifixes, another group can have their burkas. No symbols for anybody, that's the only guarantee for freedom."
The pope disagrees.
"Social coexistence and peace cannot be achieved by erasing the religious distinctiveness of each people," he said Friday. Such attempts, he said, are "not only futile but even undemocratic."
Officially, Italy's post-World War II constitution establishes separation of church and state, although the Education Ministry last year said it intended to continue to allow schools to display crosses in classrooms.