ROME (JTA) — Is the cross purely a religious sign or a symbol of national heritage?
The question is part of an ongoing debate over European identity that has taken on increasing significance in recent years with the influx of Muslims and other immigrants into Europe.
Muslim immigration in particular has prompted many countries to debate whether attitudes toward their Christian symbols, which some European states display on their flags, need to adapt to reflect the new multiethnic nature of their societies.
On the flip side, some have argued that more than ever, Europe now needs to cling to its traditional, national symbols and reassert its Christian origins.
There is "an increasing identity neurosis in the European nation-states," Swedish Jewish writer Goran Rosenberg said. "To counter this neurosis, a pluralistic narrative of Europe’s identity is essential."
The debate is not new.
In the early 2000s, Italy, the Vatican and several other states tried unsuccessfully to have an explicit reference to Europe’s "Christian roots" included in a planned but never implemented constitution for the 27-nation European Union.
The debate was reignited last November when the European Court of Human Rights, or ECHR, ruled that the display of crucifixes in Italian public school rooms is a violation of religious freedom.
The case had been brought by a mother of two near Venice who had fought the case unsuccessfully in the Italian justice system for nine years. After a storm of protest in Italy and other countries, the Italian government officially appealed the ruling at the end of January, filing a toughly worded brief that defined the crucifix as "one of the symbols of our history and our identity."
Christianity, it said, "represents the roots of our culture, what we are today." The display of the crucifix in schools "should not be seen so much for its religious meaning, but as reference to the history and tradition of Italy,” the brief said.
The debate has posed a dilemma for Europe’s Jews. Some see it as an opportunity to assail the use of Christian symbols in official state forums, such as courthouses, as problematic, while others acknowledge that the symbols have a national as well as religious nature.
"The cross is certainly more than a religious symbol," Rosenberg said. "It appears for instance in many national flags — Sweden, Denmark, Finland and others — and is thus part of the national landscape to an extent that we tend not to see it."
But Lisa Palmieri Billig, the American Jewish Committee’s liaison with the Vatican, argues that using Christian icons as symbols of national identity can be dangerous.
"To transform the cross, or any other religious symbol, into a symbol of national identity voids it of its spiritual significance and feeds currents of extreme nationalism," she said.
"Keeping the apparatus of religion and state separate guarantees the freedom and independence of both," she said. "By nationalizing the cross, the road is paved for future conflict with the growing European Islamic population."
Far from being "part of Italy’s cultural tradition," the presence of crosses in Italian public schools dates from a 1929 agreement between the Vatican and the fascist regime that regulated religious practice in the country, according to Palmieri Billig.
Italy has not had any official state religion since a 1984 reform.
When Italy appealed the European court ruling against the display of crucifixes in Italian public schools, Foreign Minister Franco Frattini characterized the case as one of national self-determination in the face of European integration.
"I consider this a battle to affirm our identity," he said this week in the Vatican’s official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano. "The government intends to uphold the right by which every sovereign state has to be free and continue to be so in deciding how to reconcile the secular with the sacred, in accordance with its history and culture."
European countries differ widely on issues of church-state separation.
France, for example, is strictly secular. A 2004 law banned students from wearing the Muslim headscarf or other religious symbols in public schools. Last month, a parliamentary panel called for a ban on women wearing the full Muslim face veil in government offices, on mass transit and in public hospitals.
In England, Anglicanism is the established state church, with the monarch its titular head, though church attendance is very low in the country.
All over Europe, public crosses and other Christian symbols — from roadside chapels to civic monuments to national flags — are so ubiquitous that their religious meaning can be forgotten.
After last fall’s court ruling against the Italian crucifixes, Poland voiced some of the loudest protest. The Polish parliament even passed a special resolution defending the cross as something "that has accompanied Poland throughout its history.”
Catholicism long has been regarded as part of Polish ethnic identity. During the postwar communist era, the Catholic Church stood as a bulwark against the Communist regime, and even some Jews attended church as an anti-communist political statement.
"To question the presence of crosses in public places would go against the Polish tradition," said Stanislaw Krajewski, a Polish Jewish intellectual active in interfaith dialogue.
Since the fall of communism, however, Polish nationalists have used the cross to promote their own agendas — most infamously in 1998, when ultranationalists planted hundreds of crosses at Auschwitz. This was meant to symbolize the site’s Polishness and reclaim what the ultranationalists branded a Jewish monopoly on martyrdom.
The crosses remained in place for 11 months until they were removed in a police raid.
Despite such episodes, the Polish Jewish writer and activist Konstanty Gebert said he generally has no problems with crosses and Christian symbols in outdoor public spaces.
"When you are in Europe you see crosses all over the place; it’s a natural thing," he said. "They are testimony to our collective past, and since our collective past is largely Christian, it is normal."
Gebert said he does believe in some red lines, however. He said he is "very uncomfortable about any religious symbols" displayed in an indoor public space, especially spaces such as courtrooms, where "there should be no other symbol except that of the state."
Krajewski said he was used to the presence of Christian symbols in Poland, though "of course I would prefer no crosses in places that should be equally welcoming every citizen."
However, he added, "The public display of religion is so rooted that it has nonstandard consequences as well. I have not heard about any protests against the public display of a huge Chanukah menorah initiated by Chabadniks in Warsaw a few years ago and now a standard event."