The Greek Orthodox Church is urging Christians across Europe to oppose a ban on crucifixes in classrooms in Italy. The ban came as a result of a November 3 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in France that the presence of crucifixes violated a child’s right to freedom of religion. The European Court of Human Rights found that the compulsory display of crucifixes violated parents’ rights to educate their children as they saw fit and restricted the right of children to believe or not to believe. Immediately after the ruling, Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said the crucifix was a fundamental sign of the importance of religious values in Italian history and culture and was a symbol of unity and welcoming for all of humanity — not one of exclusion.
Perhaps fearing the Italian case could create a precedent, the Greek Orthodox Church will hold a Holy Synod next week to discuss possible actions.
In opposing the crucifix ban in Italy, the Greek Orthodox Church joins in a rare act of ecumenism with the Roman Catholic Church. The two have been estranged for 1,000 years. The secular threat to Christian symbols and culture has apparently created common ground.
Archbishop Ieronymos, leader of the Greek church, shares Catholic complaints that the court is ignoring the role of Christianity in forming Europe’s identity. The archbishop said that majorities enjoy rights, just as minorities do. A colleague, Bishop Nicholas from central Greece, said without the religious icons young people will not have any worthy symbols to inspire and protect them. Celebrities and pop-tarts are poor substitutes, he added.
The Greek Church has intervened in this case in response to an appeal by a Greek mother whose son is studying in Italy. But without doubt it is concerned that its omnipotence in Greece is under threat. The Muslim presence is growing in Greece, just as the memory fades of the genocide of Armenians and Greeks at the hands of the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 20th century.
A human rights group called Helsinki Monitor has demanded that Greek courts remove icons of Jesus Christ from above the judge’s bench and that the gospel no longer be used for swearing oaths in the witness box. Helsinki Monitor is urging labor unions to challenge the presence of religious symbols in Greek schools. The Socialist government in Greece is also considering imposing new taxes on the Church, even while it is asking for further expenditures of church resources to aid immigrants and the poor.
Some experts fear that the decision by the ECHR could result in the removal of all public displays of Christian symbols in public buildings throughout the member countries of the European Union under provisions of the newly-passed Lisbon Treaty. The ruling effectively incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into European law. According to legal expert Neil Addison of the UK, given the inter-relationship of the ECHR, the Lisbon Treat and the European Convention on Human Rights, «unless the European Court of Human Rights overrules itself on appeal, Italy, and indeed the rest of Europe, has a serious problem.» If an appeal by Italy to the ECHR fails, Italy’s only resort would be an unlikely separation from the EU as a whole. As it stands now, Italy must report back to the court as to its efforts to remove the offending religious imagery from its public classrooms, courts, and other public venues. A majority of Italian politicians has come out against the ruling, citing interference by the EU in Italy’s millennial Christian culture.
The Lisbon Treaty’s Declaration 17 says clearly that the EU would have primacy over the laws of member states: «The Conference recalls that, in accordance with well settled case law of the Court of Justice of the European Union, the Treaties and the law adopted by the Union on the basis of the Treaties have primacy over the law of Member States, under the conditions laid down by the said case law.» Some experts fear that the ECHR’s decision could be used to prevent public schools from putting on Nativity plays, and bring about the removal of icons from Greek and Cypriot schools.
Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America.