ROME The European Court of Human Rights ruled on Tuesday that crucifixes should be removed from Italian classrooms, prompting Vatican anger and sparking uproar in Italy, where such icons are embedded in the national psyche.
"The ruling of the European court was received in the Vatican with shock and sadness," said Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, adding that it was "wrong and myopic" to try to exclude a symbol of charity from education.
The ruling by the court in Strasbourg, which Italy said it would appeal, said crucifixes on school walls -- a common sight that is part of every Italian's life -- could disturb children who were not Christians.
Italy has been in the throes of national debate on how to deal with a growing population of immigrants, mostly Muslims, and the court sentence is likely to become another battle cry for the center-right government's policy to restrict newcomers.
"This is an abhorrent ruling," said Rocco Buttiglione, a former culture minister who helped write papal encyclicals.
"It must be rejected with firmness. Italy has its culture, its traditions and its history. Those who come among us must understand and accept this culture and this history," he said.
The Vatican spokesman said it was sad that the crucifix could be considered a symbol of division and said religion offered a vital contribution to the moral formation of people.
Members of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government bristled, weighing in with words such as "shameful," "offensive," "absurd," "unacceptable," and "pagan."
Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said the court had dealt a "mortal blow to a Europe of values and rights," adding that it was a bad precedent for other countries.
Condemnation crossed party lines. Paola Binetti, a Catholic in the opposition Democratic Party, the successor of what was once the West's largest communist party, said: "In Italy, the crucifix is a specific sign of our tradition."
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.
Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini said crucifixes on the walls of tens of thousands of classrooms "do not mean adherence to Catholicism" but are a symbol of Italy's heritage.
"The history of Italy is marked by symbols and if we erase symbols we erase part of ourselves," Gelmini said.
Lautsi, the woman who filed the suit, said crucifixes on walls ran counter to her right to give her children a secular education and the Strasbourg-based court ruled in her favor.
"The presence of the crucifix ... could be encouraging for religious pupils, but also disturbing for pupils who practiced other religions or were atheists, particularly if they belonged to religious minorities," the court said in a written ruling.
"The State (must) refrain from imposing beliefs in premises where individuals were dependent on it," it added, saying the aim of public education was "to foster critical thinking."
"JESUS DOESN'T BOTHER ME"
At least one Muslim girl disagreed with the court.
"If the crucifix is there and I am a Muslim I will continue to respect my religion. Jesus in the classroom doesn't bother me," Zenat, a 14-year-old girl of Egyptian origin, told Reuters Television.
Two Italian laws dating from the 1920s, when the Fascists were in power, state that schools must display crucifixes.
Alessandra Mussolini, granddaughter of Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, said rulings such as that by the court were leading to "a Europe without an identity."
Only a handful of politicians defended the court, including some members of the Democratic Party, as well as members of the communist party and atheist groups.
(Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer in Paris and Antonio Denti in Rome; writing by Philip Pullella; editing by Myra MacDonald)