Debate on religious symbols intensifies

The public debate about whether crucifixes and religious icons should be displayed in Greece’s classrooms is set to intensify after it was revealed yesterday that the country’s Ombudsman received several complaints about infringement of religious freedoms. Four sets of parents have asked for religious symbols to be removed from their children’s classrooms and one pupil has filed a complaint about her school making her attend religious education classes. The issue of whether crosses and icons should be hung in schools, as well as other public service offices, has been a subject of discussion since last December when the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that the presence of crucifixes in classrooms was a breach of human rights after hearing a case brought by a mother from Italy. «We believe that the European Court of Human Rights ruling on the removal of religious symbols from Italian schools must also be applied by Greece,» said Panayote Dimitras, spokesman for the Greek Helsinki Monitor human rights watchdog. The possible implications of the ECHR decision for Greece prompted the Greek Orthodox Church to immediately declare its opposition to any effort to remove religious symbols from public buildings. However, Justice Minister Haris Kastanidis admitted at the time that Greece could not ignore the court’s ruling if it stands. The complaints filed with the Ombudsman could also end up at the ECHR and are certain to stoke debate in Greece. «Religious symbols are part of our country’s cultural heritage, which cannot be shaped by legislation,» said theologian Stavros Yiagazoglou. «In a democratic country, we must respect the rights of minorities but of the majority as well.»

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