By NBC News Producer
NBC News
updated 10/30/2003 3:15:20 AM ET 2003-10-30T08:15:20

A small village in central Italy is at the center of one of the stormiest religious debates this country has seen in the past 50 years. The first-grade classroom of the public elementary school in Ofena, a tiny town in the Abruzzi region northeast of Rome, is the setting, and the small wooden crucifix that hangs on the classroom wall is the target of the growing storm.

A Muslim activist, Italian by birth but with the unusual name of Adel Smith, filed suit in local courts for the removal of the crucifix from his 6-year-old son’s classroom in Ofena because of its violation of the constitutional right to equal treatment for different religions.

The judge Mario Montanaro, who may now regret his action, granted Smith’s petition.

In fact, the legal grounds for his ruling remain clouded by 20th century historical revisionism.

The requirement to display the cross stems from a law passed in 1924 under fascist dictator Benito Mussolini’s regime. But 60 years later the Lateran pact laws governing Italy’s relations with the Vatican were revised and Catholicism was no longer designated a “state religion.”

Consequently, while the national magistrates association has defended Montanaro’s authority, the justice ministry has ordered an investigation of the judge’s actions with the possibility of disciplinary charges against him.

The ensuing rhetorical brawl has dominated the air waves, drawn a wide range of religious and government leaders and forced an unexpected debate on what it means to be Italian and whether Catholicism, practiced by few, should be granted any special recognition.

On Wednesday, a court official was dispatched from Aquila, the provincial capital, to enforce the ruling in the school. The official met with the school principal but by nightfall the cross was still on the wall, with reporters and camera crews surrounding the school and a group of mothers holding up a white sheet scrawled with “Keep your hands off that crucifix!”

The “defenders” of the cross seemed bolstered by the groundswell of public support.

DEFENDED BIN LADEN

The man behind the fracas represents himself as the president of the “Association of Italian Muslims” and has a reputation for taking radical positions such as defending Osama Bin Laden. Some of his fiercest critics are his own fellow Muslims.

Mario Scialoja, a World Muslim League representative, told Vatican radio this week, “This is an unfortunate ruling brought on by a request from Mr. Adel Smith, who represents himself and another three people at most.”

The young judge who made the inflammatory ruling has refused to face the media and has so far only been filmed through his courthouse windows with a long lens. Montanaro has received threatening phone calls and is now under constant police protection.

Although most Italians are hardly likely to get violent about this issue, the tones of the debate have certainly heated up considerably since the story broke last weekend.

The more respectable of the national talk shows have tackled the topic with gusto, gathering large panels of high-profile leaders to confront Smith.

The plaintiff, on the other hand, has got the public exposure he feels the issue deserves, and is taking full advantage of his microphone time to expound on what he calls “psychological discrimination inherent in the display of the cross in public places” giving Catholicism “privileged status.”

95 PERCENT CATHOLIC

But the clamor triggered by this controversy has now surpassed the honesty or lack thereof in Smith’s motives or credentials — and has struck sensitive nerves just below the surface of the Italian psyche.

The debate has put the spotlight on the delicate balance between church and state in a country where Catholicism is no longer the “state religion” but where the population is avowedly 95 percent Roman Catholic.

Despite the fact that the percentage of practicing Catholics is so much less, this challenge to the religion’s symbol was taken by most Italians as an affront to their identity, an offense to the culture, to what it means to “be Italian.”

Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi emphasized that very aspect in his response. “In my judgment, the crucifix has always been considered not only a distinctive sign of a particular religious credo, but above all as a symbol of the values that are at the base of our Italian identity.”

Most people here seem to subscribe to his point of view, although not everybody.

Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni, the leader of Rome’s small Jewish community, disagreed that the cross is simply a symbol of cultural identity.

Instead, he said, “We appreciate the positive values that Christians attribute to the cross, like peace and life, but we have had a negative history with the cross and what it represented for us, a sign of oppression and intolerance in the name of religion.

“We respect the fact that the cross joins many people as a symbol of peace, but it is not universal because not all of us share this view.”

Needless to say, the leader of the Catholic church doesn’t see it that way. At his regular public audience on Wednesday, Pope John Paul II reiterated his view that the cross was a “universal symbol of comfort and hope for men of all times.”

The controversy also has renewed tension over the influx of immigrants into Italy. Boatloads of desperate workers from Muslim countries have risked their lives at sea for a chance of economic prosperity in Western Europe — and for many, Italy is the gateway to this promised land.

Only recently, the intolerance appeared to be abating after the tragic death of dozens cast adrift in the Mediterranean near Sicily. And the right-wing National Alliance party, now in government, has proposed that legal immigrants be allowed to vote in Italy.

Muslims now worry that the angry reaction to the crucifix decision could turn into a backlash against them.

There are 800,000 Muslims living in Italy and they have so far been spared any prejudicial fallout from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. But several now worry that this latest issue could cause a shift in attitudes toward them.

For now, the children of Ofena will have to continue to cut through a crowd of journalists and political demonstrators to get to class, while the typical assortment of elderly retired folks who populate these small villages look on in dismay and wonder out loud why of all the towns in Italy, this man, Adel Smith, had to pick their village to live in.

(NBC’s Stephen Weeke is based in Rome.)

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