By Hilary White

ROME, November 17, 2009 ( – Poland's president, Lech Kaczynski and the leadership of the Greek Orthodox Church have both hit out at a decision by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) attempting to ban the display of crucifixes in Italian public schools. At the same time, a general revolt against the ruling in municipalities all over Italy has been started by public officials, who are now ordering the display of crucifixes in schools, and levelling fines for non-compliance.

The November 3rd ECHR ruling, made in response to a complaint by an Italian secularist campaigner, said that the display of crucifixes violated the religious rights of pupils.

During Independence Day celebrations on Wednesday in Warsaw, Poland's Kaczynski said that “nobody in Poland will accept the message that you can't hang crosses in schools.”

“One shouldn't count on that. Perhaps elsewhere, but never in Poland,” Kaczynski said.

The reaction from Poland has touched a national nerve in a country where crucifixes and other religious symbols were banned under the atheistic communist rule and are now a prominent symbol of national sovereignty.

Lech Walesa, the former president and leader of the Solidarity movement that eventually freed Poland from its Soviet-controlled communist dictatorship, challenged the court ruling in a TV interview Thursday, saying, ”We must respect minorities but also protect the rights of the majority.”

At the same time, Archbishop Ieronymos, the Archbishop of Athens and primate of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Greece has also spoken out, urging all Europeans to oppose the ruling, saying the court is ignoring the role of Christianity in forming Europe's identity. The Greek Church has intervened in the case in response to a Greek citizen whose son is studying in Italy, the BBC reports.

The reactions from Greece and Poland reflect the warning made recently by UK legal expert Neil Addison, who told that, because of the intricacies of European Union law, the Italian crucifix ruling is likely ultimately to affect all 27 member states.

Addison, an author and expert on anti-discrimination law, said that if the Italian government loses their appeal, the ruling could result in the enforced exclusion of all public displays of Christian symbols all over Europe. Addison specifically warned that in countries like Greece and Cyprus, the common display of icons in public places would be under threat.

In fact, since the November 3rd ruling was announced, a secularist activist group in Greece, the Greek Helsinki Monitor, has called for a similar ruling to be applied to that country. The group is urging trade unions to challenge the presence of religious symbols in Greek schools.

The BBC reports that the Orthodox Church plans to hold an emergency Holy Synod to hash out a plan to oppose the ruling.

Meanwhile, Italian papers are reporting a general revolt across the country against the Strasburg ruling. All schools in the League Monza in the Lombardy region, have been given seven days to ensure that crucifixes are displayed in every classroom. The mayor of Besana in Brianza, Vittorio Gatti, signed an order levelling a €150 fine for non-compliance.

Mayor Gatti said, “We will give principals time to adjust, but then the order will be respected.”

In a statement published on the municipality's website, the mayor referred to the ECHR decision, saying, “We believe that the crucifix is a symbolic expression in Italy of the religious origin of such important civic values as tolerance, mutual respect, enhancement of the person, freedom, solidarity and rejection of any discrimination.”

“I believe I have decided the right thing. I have always seen crucifixes in schools and I believe we should have respect for our traditions and defend them against those who do not even know what they're talking about,” Gatti said.
The mayor of Priverno in the province of Latina, Lazio, central Italy, signed an order which provides for the maintenance of crucifixes in classrooms of primary schools throughout the municipality. Mayor Umberto Macci, instructed the municipal police to check that crucifixes are in place, with non-compliance to be fined €500. Citing 1924 and 1927 regulations on school furniture, which provided for the display of crucifixes in schools, the mayor said they are “an expression of fundamental civic values and Italian cultural values.”

The mayor of Ascoli Piceno in the in the Marche region near the central east coast, said the crucifix expresses “in a symbolic way, the origin of religious values of the republican constitution. I am referring to freedom, mutual respect, appreciation of the person, solidarity and the rejection of any discrimination.”

Mayor Guido Castelli cited state laws that agreed the display of crucifixes in classrooms “does not seem open to criticism over the principle of secularism” of the Italian State.