By Stephen Brown Nov 4, 2009
ROME (Reuters) - Italy's Silvio Berlusconi said on Wednesday a European Court of Human Rights ruling that called for crucifixes to be removed from Italian classrooms was a nonsensical attempt to deny Europe's Christian roots.
The Roman Catholic country has reacted with outrage to Tuesday's ruling from Strasbourg that the ubiquitous crucifixes on walls in Italian schools could disturb children who were not Christian.
The conservative prime minister, who draws much of his support from the Roman Catholic majority, told a television show the ruling was an attempt to "deny Europe's Christian roots. This is not acceptable for us Italians."
Berlusconi pointed out that Italy has so many churches that "you only have to walk 200 meters forwards, backwards, to the right or to the left and you find a symbol of Christianity."
"This is one of those decisions that often make us doubt Europe's good sense," said the prime minister, confirming that Italy intended to appeal against the ruling once his cabinet has studied it at its weekly meeting on Friday.
The Vatican expressed "shock and sadness" at the court ruling, which was condemned across the ideological divide in a rare moment of unity among Italian politicians. Only some on the far left and atheist groups backed the ruling.
Mayors all over the country vowed to defy the ruling and there were angry reactions from Catholic strongholds abroad such as Poland. Thousands of people protested on social networking sites on the Internet.
"Europe in the third millennium is leaving us only Halloween pumpkins while depriving us of our most beloved symbols," said Vatican number two, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.
Italy has been in the throes of debate on how to deal with a growing population of immigrants, mostly Muslims, and the ruling could become another battle cry for the government's policy drive to crack down on new arrivals.
Mara Bizzotto, a European parliamentarian for Berlusconi's anti-immigrant coalition partner, the Northern League, asked why the European court had taken action against the crucifix but did not ban Muslim symbols such as "veils, burqas and niqabs."
The case was brought by an Italian national, Soile Lautsi, who complained that her children had to attend a public school in northern Italy which had crucifixes in every room, thereby denying her the right to give them a secular education.
Two Italian laws dating from the 1920s, when the Fascists were in power, state that schools must display crucifixes.
(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)